The Secret of the
HOW ONE MAN'S OBSESSION LED TO THE SOLUTION
OP ANCIENT EGYPT'S GREATEST MYSTERY
J EAN-PIERRE HO U DIN
How One Man’s
Obsession Led to the Solution of
Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Mystery
I dedicate this book to my two closest friends: the video artist
Bulle Plexiglass* (my wife Michelle) and Henri, my father, with
whom I’ve all my life had a very strong relationship and a close
I want to thank Bulle for always pushing me to go to the
essential in life, to live every day full-time with ethics and pas-
sion. That vision of life led us, in the late nineties, to take a sab-
batical year in New York looking for new ideas. Thanks to that
break — our break with routine — I came back to Paris with new
tools (digital 3-D and Internet), ready for what I call my third
life — a totally unexpected one, focusing on one of the last mys-
teries on earth: trying to resolve how the Great Pyramid was
built! In a few words: the Man in Black would have never existed
I want to thank Henri for having ignited, almost ten years
ago, my passion for the Pyramid of Khufu with an idea of genius:
that true great pyramids were built not from the outside but from
within, a breakthrough concept relative to what has been thought
for two hundred years. This is the idea that I unconsciously was
looking for for my third life. And I’m proud that our Khufu
Adventure has kept us close to each other. Henri recently turned
eighty-five and is still “young and active”; I have the feeling that
this Khufu Adventure is no little cause for that.
I want also to pay tribute to Renee, my late mother, who was
always very anxious about the future of her son and daughter-
in-law, concerned about the difficult period Bulle and I went
through financially. Sadly, she passed away three years ago after
a long and terrible illness. She was no longer with us when the
“Khufu Story” started to become recognized and respected.
r ww w-bulleplexiglass.net
The Man in Black I
Birth of the Pyramid 7
Meeting with the Master 19
Imhotep Builds the Step Pyramid 23
Sneferu: King of the Pyramids 29
An Architect Is Born 37
Architect Adrift 43
A Troubled Bridge? 47
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid 49
The Underground Burial Chamber 79
Photographic Insert I
Modern Tomb Raiders: The Search for Hidden Chambers 85
The Grand Gallery 93
The Burial Chamber 107
Hemienu’s Solution 113
First Plans 125
Anomaly Rising 133
The Notch 137
The Internal Ramp 139
Photographic Insert II
The Capstone 145
The Difficult Years 151
The Internal Ramp Goes Public 155
The Time Machine to Hemienu 167
The Search for the Internal Ramp 171
What’s Next? 185
Appendix I: The Search for Imhotep 191
Appendix II: The Lost Pyramid 194
Appendix III: The Case of the Missing Queen
Appendix IV: Making Khufu’s Sarcophagus 199
Appendix V: The Pyramid’s Angle 201
Photography Credits 215
About the Authors
Other Books by Bob Brier
About the Publisher
N early ten years ago, when my father and I started our amazing
adventure about Khufu, we were just the two of us. At the
time of the publication of this book, we are no longer alone:
hundreds of smart, skilled, and friendly people joined us throughout
these long years. The tiny stream from the early times became a large
river, still growing more and more, day after day. It would be quite
impossible to thank by name each of them in these acknowledgments,
but I want them to know how deep my gratitude is for their support,
help, and advice.
I want to thank all the civil engineering experts from the CNISF (Con-
seil National des Ingenieurs et des Scientifiques de France) who were,
from the end of 1999, the first interested in our studies. Their knowledge
and competence in the construction field have always been very useful for
us. Later, they formed the backbone of the ACGP (Association Construire
la Grande Pyramide; www.construire-la-grande-pyramide.fr), an associa-
tion set up in 2003 to financially support the development of the theory
and to help set up a scientific survey on the Giza Plateau.
I am grateful to the founding members of the ACGP, among them
Jean Billard, Franqois Levieux, Jean-Louis Simonneau, Paul Allard,
Bernard Marrey, Paul Lemoine, Daniel Solvet, Charles Bambade, Do-
minique Ferre, Georges Reme, Emilienne Dubois, and Ruth Schu-
mann-Antelme. Many others joined the ACGP, mainly as honorary
members because of their valuable involvement as scientists, Egyptolo-
gists, engineers, personalities, or simply people passionate about ancient
My thanks go to my Egyptian friends, among them Mourad M. Bak-
houm, Farid Atiya, Hany Helal, Naheed Abdel Reheem, Brigitte Boulad,
Sherine Mishriki, Hassan Benham, Mounir Neamatalla, Taha Abdallah,
Mahmoud Ismail, Essam El Maghraby, Atef Moukhtar, Waffiq Shamma,
Nadia Fanous, Sayed Kotb, and the staff of the Victoria Flotel in Cairo.
My thanks go to my French friends, among them Denis Denoel,
Marc Buonomo, Pierre Grussenmeyer, Franqois Schlosser, Jean Car-
ayon, Hubert Labonne, Jean Berthier, Raoul Jahan, Herve Piquet,
Raphael Thierry, Albert Ranson, Jean-Jacques Urban-Galindo, Pierre
Deletie (deceased), Hui Duong Bui, Guy Delbrel, Dominique Gimet,
Francois de Closets, and . . . Bernard, my brother.
My thanks go to my other non-French friends, among them Craig
B. Smith, Bob Goldberg, Roman Golicz, Jon Bodsworth, Jack Bak-
layan, Jeffrey Kearney, Lionel Woog, Mark Rose, Norman Stockle,
Jack Scaparro, Pat Remler, and Bob Brier.
My thanks go to the following companies that have supported the
Khufu Adventure since 2004 through financial or technical donations
to the ACGP: Eiffel (Jacques Huillard), Dassault Systemes (Bernard
Charles); Thales Group (Thierry Brizard); Schneider Electric Egypte,
(Frederic Abbal, Emmanuel Lemasson); Gaz de France Egypte (Pat-
rick Longueville, Jean-Louis Chenel); Air France (Franqois Brousse);
Jacquet SA (Christian Jacquet), GPI (Michel Gergonne); Borifer
FIB (Jean-Fran^ois Bordenave); Enerpac France (Guillaume Butty);
Groupe Pyramides Egypte (Bruno Neyret); Arab Consulting Engineers
(Mourad M. Bakhoum); and Farid Atiya Press (Farid Atiya). Without
their support, the Khufu Adventure would have been long dead.
My thanks also for the Egyptologists Audran Labrousse, Dieter
Arnold, and Rainer Stadelmann, who simply took the time to listen
to me, even though I don’t belong to the Egyptology community. The
interest they showed and their advice are those of respectable people.
I wish to include a special acknowledgment to Mehdi Tayoubi,
Richard Breitner, Fabien Barati, Emmanuel Guerriero, and the whole
“Khufu Revealed” team (www.3ds.com/khufu) at Dassault Systemes
and Emissive. We have already spent three years together on Khufu’s
Pyramid. Something tells me that we have a lot of work still ahead, and
that one day in the near future we will be able to tell more about this
Special thanks to my friend Laurent Chapus.
I hope those I haven’t named above will forgive me, but I want
them to be sure that I think about them as much as those I have.
Bob, Pat . . . thank you for all.
T here are many people to thank and on the top of my list is Jean-
Pierre Houdin. Helping him with Secret of the Great Pyramid
has been a wonderful intellectual adventure. I haven’t learned
so much from one person since graduate school! I asked so many ques-
tions about the Great Pyramid that we now both laugh when I say, “I
have a question.” Jean-Pierre, I hope you get to take your walk up the
On a more earthly level I am indebted to my agent, Liza Dawson.
More than just an agent, Liza is a superb editor who always pushes me
to say more and do better. When Liza was satisfied that we had a book,
she placed me in the capable hands of Elisabeth Dyssegaard, my editor
at Smithsonian Books. Elisabeth understood the project right from the
beginning, guided the book, improved my writing, and even made the
endeavor fun. Her assistant, Kate Antony, somehow made sense of all
Jean-Pierre’s diagrams and illustrations and was midwife at the birth of
order out of chaos.
As in all the books I have written, my wife, Pat Remler, not only
forced me to clarify my murky prose, but also provided crucial photos.
Finally, I want to thank yet another unofficial editor, Judith Turner,
whose architectural knowledge saved me time and again.
Thank you all!
The Man in Black
A lmost all Egyptologists receive mail from strangers. Sometimes
it is from reincarnated pharaohs; sometimes it is from prospec-
tive tourists who want to know if they can drink the water.
(You can’t.) Because my specialty is mummies, I receive hundreds of
letters and e-mails from sixth graders who have been studying Egypt in
school and want to mummify their recently deceased parakeets. About
twice a year I receive offers from people who want to donate their
bodies for mummification when they die. To these good folks I reply
that I did that once, as a research project, and have now moved on.
No matter what our Egyptological specialty, we all receive com-
munications from retired engineers with theories of how the pyramids
were built. Usually there is an obvious flaw that even I can spot. On
June 16, 2003 I received an e-mail from a French architect, Jean-Pierre
Houdin, who had his own theory of how the Great Pyramid of Giza
had been built. My friend Jack Josephson, an art historian who also
has a degree in engineering, had suggested he contact me. Jack is a no-
nonsense type of guy; I knew that if he told Houdin to contact me, it
would be worthwhile to meet him. So I invited Jean-Pierre for dinner.
Also coming was my friend Armand, an engineer who had been to
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
Egypt, and his wife, as well as another friend, Jack Scaparro, who was
working on a novel set in Egypt. My Egyptologist wife, Pat, rounded
out a receptive audience of five.
Jean-Pierre arrived at precisely 4:00 p.m., as suggested. We wanted
time to hear and discuss his theory before dinner at seven, but would
soon discover that three hours was not nearly enough time. This was
not your ordinary pyramid theory. Our guest was dressed all in black,
including a fashionable black leather jacket — in New York in June.
A well-manicured gray-haired man of fifty, he had a pleasant smile
and spoke heavily accented but good English. We were soon gath-
ered around the coffee table as Jean-Pierre set up his laptop. He ex-
plained that he had given up his architectural practice five years ago so
he could devote himself to the puzzle of how the Great Pyramid was
built. Working out of his Paris apartment, he spent six or seven hours
a day creating elaborate 3-D computer simulations of the interior and
exterior of the Great Pyramid. As his computer models progressed he
became more and more obsessed with the Pyramid, until it was all he
Jean-Pierre’s interest in the Great Pyramid began in 1999 when his
father, an engineer, watched a television documentary on the pyramids
and realized the program’s presentation of how the Great Pyramid was
built was all wrong. He had another idea of how the huge blocks were
raised to the top, a revolutionary idea, different from anything anyone
had ever proposed, so he called his son Jean-Pierre and laid it out.
The father-son team was ideal to tackle this mystery. Henri Houdin
had earned a PhD in engineering from Paris’s prestigious Ecole des
Arts et Metiers. In 1950, as a twenty-seven-year-old engineer, he was
sent to Ivory Coast to build their infrastructure. When he arrived there
were eight kilometers of paved roads; when he left there were high-
ways, bridges, and power plants. For decades Jean-Pierre had designed
houses and office buildings; he knew about planning big projects. The
two were equipped to answer the question how the Great Pyramid was
built, but it would not be easy. Eventually the search for the answer
would take over both their lives.
While his laptop booted up, Jean-Pierre explained how his com-
puter graphics helped him understand the interior and exterior of the
Great Pyramid. With new, sophisticated software developed for archi-
tects, he created 3-D images of the chambers inside the Great Pyra-
The Man in Black
mid. Then, on his computer screen, he could rotate the images to see
the spatial relationships between the rooms — what features were on the
same level, what parts had to have been built first, where the largest
stones in the Pyramid were placed.
As he clicked the keypad, beautiful diagrams of the Pyramid ap-
peared and we realized we were in the presence of a man who knew
the Great Pyramid intimately. He explained why some blocks in the
Pyramid were limestone and others granite; why the patterns of stone
in some walls were different from others. I have friends who are pyra-
mid experts, but I had never heard anything from them as detailed as
Jean-Pierre’s explanation. I was astounded by the quality of his graph-
ics. Little figures hauled blocks up inclined ramps and put them in place
with ingenious lifting devices. He even had topographical maps of the
Giza Plateau to show how the architects of the Great Pyramid took
advantage of the natural contours of the land to move huge blocks of
stone. The images weren’t just informative, they were beautiful. I had
just completed a high -budget documentary for The Learning Channel
on pyramids around the world. We’d spent thousands and thousands of
dollars on our graphics, and Jean-Pierre’s were better!
Jean-Pierre explained the difficulties with the two competing the-
ories of how the blocks in the Pyramid were raised to the top. The
single ramp theory, so often shown in television documentaries, could
be easily discredited. The basic idea is that blocks were hauled up a
long ramp constructed against one of the sides of the Pyramid. As the
Pyramid grew, the ramp was raised and extended. The problem is that
to keep the slope gentle enough so men could haul blocks, the ramp
would have to be a mile long. If the Pyramid were being built on the
site of New York’s Empire State Building, the ramp would extend
all the way into Central Park, about twenty-five city blocks. Build-
ing just the ramp would have taken thousands of men decades. Also,
there would have been a tremendous amount of debris from such a
ramp, and rubble doesn’t just disintegrate in the desert; but huge piles
of rubble have never been found. Perhaps most damaging to the single
ramp theory is the fact that there is practically no place to put such a
long ramp on the Giza Plateau.
The second theory fared no better in Jean-Pierre’s analysis. It pos-
ited that a ramp had corkscrewed around the outside of the Pyramid
itself, like a road winding around a mountain. This solves the no-space
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
problem. But this theory has a fatal flaw as well. The Pyramid has
four corners, and as the Pyramid grew, the architects had to constantly
sight along those corners to make sure the edges were straight and thus
ensure that they would meet at a perfect point at the top. But a ramp
corkscrewing up the outside would have obscured these sight lines.
Thus this too couldn’t be how the ancient Egyptians raised the blocks
to the top. 1
Jean-Pierre showed us graphics of what the Pyramid looked like,
year by year, as it was being built. And then he sprang his theory. He
claimed that inside the Great Pyramid was a mile -long ramp corkscrew-
ing up to the top, that had remained undetected for 4,500 years! We
were astonished. The theory was so radical, so different from anything
ever imagined, that it seemed impossible. But as the parade of graph-
ics continued on the computer screen and Jean-Pierre explained the
details, it seemed more and more credible, even probable. Here was
a solution that answered the questions Egyptologists had been asking
for decades. Somehow the centuries-old mystery of the Great Pyramid
had been solved by this intense Frenchman dressed in black. I had the
feeling that this theory just might be one of the great moments in the
intellectual history of the world.
We were all overwhelmed by Jean-Pierre’s step-by-step explanation
of the new theory, but the Jean-Pierre Pyramid Show was just begin-
ning. For two more hours, a parade of graphics and explanations of Pyra-
mid minutiae appeared on his laptop. We saw what the Pyramid looked
like after five years, seven years, ten years, twenty years, until it seemed
as if we were watching it rise block by block. There are three cham-
bers inside the Great Pyramid, and Jean-Pierre gave us the construction
details of all three. Two of the rooms — the King’s Chamber and the
Queen’s Chamber — were clearly intended for burials. They are rectan-
gular rooms where you can put a sarcophagus, statues, funerary furni-
ture, and anything else needed for the next world. The great puzzle is the
mysterious Grand Gallery. It doesn’t make any architectural sense. It is a
long hallway sloping upward inside the Pyramid, leading to the King’s
Chamber. But why the twenty-eight-foot ceiling? And why line the side
walls with low stone benches with strange grooves carved in them? Our
guest in black had an answer for every question.
After three hours Jean-Pierre was still just warming up, but he had
lost his audience; we were all brain-dead. Jean-Pierre had no idea that
The Man in Black
much of what he had thrown at us had simply bounced off. None of us
was nearly so familiar with the Pyramid as he was; there were concepts
we just couldn’t wrap our nonarchitect brains around. But we were
all impressed. Jean-Pierre could visualize the Great Pyramid in three
dimensions in a way no one had ever imagined possible. The man in
black was amazing.
Feeding Jean-Pierre was the only way I could think of to slow him
down. Still, he continued his Pyramid seminar, laying out the physical
evidence to support his theory and so the discussion continued over
pasta. By dessert the radical new idea was looking better and better. I
asked Jean-Pierre what most impressed him when he first saw the Great
Pyramid. “Oh, I’ve never been there,” he answered nonchalantly. The
man who had given up his career as an architect and devoted five years
of his life unraveling the secrets of the Great Pyramid had never seen
it — and didn’t want to! When I pressed Jean-Pierre about visiting the
Pyramid, he wasn’t interested. “Oh, I know what it looks like,” he said,
and added some polite response like, “Oh yes, I must do that.” Clearly,
for him the Great Pyramid was an abstract intellectual puzzle to be
solved, not a monument to be visited. Perhaps he was afraid he would
be disappointed; perhaps he feared something he might see would dis-
prove his theory and the search would be over.
As the evening wore on the question became, what to do next? Here
was a man with what could be the most important archaeological dis-
covery of the century. For five years he had devoted his life to solving
an incredibly difficult intellectual puzzle. It was one of those rare times
when obsession seems to have produced something positive — indeed,
something wonderful, so wonderful that I found myself being drawn
into the obsession. I wanted to be part of it; I wanted to be there when
Jean-Pierre found his internal ramp.
Birth of the Pyramid
O f the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramids
still stand. Virtually nothing remains of the Hanging Gar-
dens of Babylon; of the Colossus of Rhodes only an occa-
sional fragment turns up in a fisherman’s net, and nonhistorians would
find it difficult to even name the remaining four (the Statue of Zeus at
Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Lighthouse at Alexan-
dria, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus). Each year the pyramids are
visited by millions of tourists who stare in wonder at the achievement
of ancient man. When you stand in front of the Great Pyramid you can
almost feel its massive weight.
One hundred and seven pyramids are scattered throughout Egypt,
but the pyramids on the Giza Plateau are the famous ones. They are the
largest, best preserved, and most visited of all the pyramids. The Great
Pyramid is only a few feet taller than the one next to it, but because of
its unique maze of internal rooms and passages, it is the one with all the
legends. The Pyramid’s entrance remained unknown until the ninth
century when the caliph A1 Mamun tunneled deep into its core and hit
a passageway. By torchlight his men followed the passageway upward
until they discovered the Queen’s Chamber, a small rectangular room
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
with twenty-two huge limestone rafters forming the ceiling. To their
disappointment, the room was empty, but still in search of treasure, they
continued upward through the Grand Gallery to the King’s Chamber,
where they found only an empty sarcophagus; all the treasure had been
carried off centuries before. Still, the adventures of A1 Mamun’s band
of would-be tomb robbers became one of the 1001 tales in the Arabian
Nights, that says A1 Mamun found weapons of metal that would not rust
and glass that would not break. 2 Modern science has studied, mapped,
and photographed the Great Pyramid more than any other pyramid,
yet it still harbors mysteries. There are rooms whose purposes are un-
known, and only recently a robotic camera sent up the air shafts in the
Queen’s Chamber discovered tiny doors with copper handles. What
lies behind these doors is still unknown. 3
Of all these mysteries, the biggest is how the Great Pyramid was
built. The Egyptians were a nation of accountants. They recorded ev-
erything — how many of the enemy they killed in battle, the names
of the pharaoh’s children, even cake recipes. We have medical papyri,
short stories, laundry lists, reports of expeditions — but not a single doc-
ument recording how the pyramids were built. I can tell you the names
of the two horses that pulled Ramses the Great’s chariot at the Battle
of Kadesh (Mut Is Content and Victory in Thebes) but I can’t tell you
how the Egyptians hauled those huge blocks up the Great Pyramid or
how many men worked on the Pyramid at any one time. The ancient
Egyptian records are silent when it comes to the greatest building proj-
ect in the history of man. Because of this, wild theories have always
When Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, visited the pyra-
mids, he proudly proclaimed that his ancestors built them. The prime
minister had bought into one of the many pyramid myths. When Be-
gin’s ancestors were in bondage in Egypt, the pyramids were already
ancient. The Old Testament never mentions the pyramids. It does,
however, say that the Israelites built the store cities of Ramses and
Pithum, which places the Israelites sojourn in Egypt during the reign of
Ramses the Great — a thousand years after the Great Pyramid was built. 4
Hebrew slaves hauling blocks is pure Hollywood. The pyramids were
built by free labor — Egyptian construction workers who were paid for
their services — but slaves building the Pyramid isn’t the only Biblical
nonsense connected with the Pyramid. There’s a story in the Bible that
Birth of the Pyramid
has nothing to do with the pyramids, but in the eighteenth century
somehow it was linked to them.
Remember the Biblical story of Joseph and how he interprets the
pharaoh’s dream of seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows? 5 Joseph
explains that there will be seven prosperous years for Egypt, but they
will be followed by seven years of famine. Based on Joseph’s dream in-
terpretation, grain is stored during the prosperous years so Egypt will
not starve during the lean years. Where was all that grain stored? You
guessed it — in the Great Pyramid. One of the earliest theories of the
function of the pyramids was that they were “Joseph’s granaries.”
There are so many things fundamentally wrong with this theory that
it could only have been invented by someone who had never seen the
pyramids. Think about it. The pyramid would have to have been built
in less than seven years in order to store the grain for the lean years. It
might be argued that the pyramids were built as granaries before Joseph
arrived on the scene; that they were always Egypt’s way of storing
grain. But we still have the problem of where to put the grain inside
the pyramid. It’s mostly solid! Even if the few interior rooms inside the
pyramid were used to store the grain, that would entail it being carried
through narrow, dark passages over slippery inclines and up to a great
height inside the pyramid. No, whoever first concocted the Joseph’s
granary theory never saw the pyramids.
Prior to the eighteenth century, you could get away with this kind
of theory because practically no one outside of Egypt had seen the pyr-
amids. Most of the early published illustrations of the Giza pyramids
were drawn by artists who had heard about them but certainly not seen
them. They had been told that they were on a plateau, and were pointy,
so they drew what they thought they looked like. Often they were too
steep and too numerous. Finally, in the seventeenth century, when ad-
venturous travelers began visiting Egypt, the theories about the Great
Pyramid began to be based on observation, but that still didn’t mean
they were sensible.
One of the most common misconceptions about the Great Pyramid
is that encoded in its measurements are secrets of the universe. In 1620,
John Greaves, a young Oxford astronomer, visited the Pyramid. 6 Like
many before him, he believed the Egyptians were an advanced civiliza-
tion whose knowledge exceeded his. Greaves believed that the Egyp-
tians knew the exact circumference of the earth, and was convinced
Early depictions of the pyramids of Giza were often drawn by artists who had never been to
Birth of the Pyramid
that they had built this calculation into the dimensions of the Pyramid.
In preparation for his visit to Giza, Greaves measured ancient monu-
ments throughout Europe, trying to determine units of measure. He
became familiar with the Roman foot, the English foot, and the Greek
foot, and all kinds of other measures. Armed with precisely made brass
measuring rods, he sailed for Egypt to conduct the first scientific survey
of the Pyramid.
Greaves’s exploration of the Great Pyramid was quite different from
what the modern tourist experiences. There were no lights. Greaves
had to make his way by torchlight, passing through swarms of bats and
more than once nearly passing out from the stench of the bat guano.
When Greaves ascended the Grand Gallery to reach the King’s Cham-
ber, there was no wood planking over which tourists now walk. Nor
were there handrails, so in the near dark, fighting bats and slippery
inclines, Greaves worked his way into the bowels of the Pyramid.
Through it all, dragging his measuring rods, he recorded the dimen-
sions of the Pyramid as precisely as possible. In addition to his measure-
ments, Greaves discovered a well-like chamber at the base of the Grand
Gallery that was dug to provide air for the workers excavating the de-
When he returned to London, he published his results in a small
book titled Pyramidographia, but it was all for naught. His measurements
were inaccurate. In Greaves’s day, the base of the Pyramid was cov-
ered with a thirty-foot-high pile of rubble that obliterated its corners.
Greaves was forced to estimate the base of the Pyramid and was off by
more than fifty feet. To determine the height, Greaves climbed the
Pyramid, counting the courses as he went. Estimating the number cov-
ered with rubble, he came to a total of 297. Again he was off: his esti-
mate of the height (499 feet) was too high.
Sometimes it wasn’t just a matter of inaccurate measurements.
Greaves was overwhelmed by the entire experience and got even the
most basic things wrong. He says the burial chamber’s walls are made
of six levels of stone; it’s five. Still, this was a pioneering attempt. Two
hundred years later another astronomer would undertake a survey the
Great Pyramid with greater accuracy.
In March 1864, Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal of Scotland, sailed
for Egypt to conduct the most detailed measurement ever of the Great
Pyramid. He believed that the Pyramid’s dimensions were the key to
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
Biblical revelations, so it was crucial for him to know exactly how tall,
how wide, how deep the Pyramid and all its chambers were. Although
the Pyramid predated Christianity by more than 2,000 years, Smyth
was convinced it was actually a Christian monument. “The Great Pyr-
amid was yet prophetically intended — by inspiration afforded to the
architect from the one and only living God, who rules in heaven and
announced vengeance against the sculptured idols of Egypt.” 7
Smyth threw himself into the task of surveying the Pyramid with
religious abandon, spending money he didn’t have to manufacture pre-
cise instruments for his survey. He even invented a miniature eight-inch
camera with photographic plates about the size of a modern slide, so he
could photograph in the smallest of crevices. Thus when in March of
1864 the Astronomer Royal and his devoted wife sailed for Egypt, with
them went hundreds of pounds of carefully crated equipment they hoped
would lead to revelations left by God that were encoded in the Pyramid.
They arrived in Alexandria, made the daylong journey to Cairo, and
soon took up residence in one of the tombs near the Pyramid.
Smyth believed that the unit of measurement used by the Pyramid’s
builders was something he called “the sacred cubit.” If he could deter-
mine exactly how large the sacred cubit was, then he could determine
how many cubits for the height of the Pyramid, how many cubits in the
sides of the burial chamber, and so on. Then, once he had those dimen-
sions, he could deduce the secret message they contained. For months
Smyth crawled in and out of the Pyramid with his specially crafted
measuring rods, “inclinators,” and cameras. He did indeed conduct the
most precise survey of the Pyramid ever, and concluded that coded into
the Pyramid’s measurements were the exact size, shape, and motions
of the earth. 8 He concluded that the unit used in the construction of
the Pyramid was also used in the construction of Solomon’s Temple
and Noah’s Ark. From his measurements of the burial chamber and the
empty sarcophagus in it, Smyth deduced the earth’s density. The expe-
dition was a remarkable combination of exacting science and delusion.
After Smyth returned home he published Life and Work at the Great
Pyramid (1867). It was universally rejected by the scientific community
as the ravings of a religious fanatic. For years Smyth churned out re-
vised editions of his book and never gave up the theory. If the Astrono-
mer Royal of Scotland formulated such theories, is it any wonder that
some people today believe the Pyramid was built by aliens?
Birth of the Pyramid
A 1970s fad invested the pyramid shape with magical properties.
Place a dull razor blade inside a cardboard pyramid and it will sharpen;
put meat inside your mini pyramid and it will be preserved; some “pyr-
amidiots” even wore small pyramids on their heads to be energized. 9
The movie Stargate uses the Pyramid as a launchpad to the next world.
The ancient Egyptians would have thought all this very funny. For
them the pyramid shape had hardly any significance, certainly noth-
ing magical. It was simply an architectural development, the same way
our skyscrapers evolved out of smaller earlier buildings. For the Egyp-
tians there was one and only one purpose for a pyramid — to protect the
body of the pharaoh. It was all about life after death.
No civilization has ever devoted more of its resources and energy to
preparing for immortality than the Egyptians. Much of what we know
about life in ancient Egypt comes from studying their physical prepara-
tions for life in the next world. They were resurrectionists — they be-
lieved they were going to get up and go again in the next world, where
the party would continue forever. Because the next world was going to
be a continuation of this one, you would need pretty much the same
stuff you had in this world — clothing, food, furniture, even your dog.
In 1906, the great Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli discovered
the intact tomb of the architect Kha and his wife Merit. There, neatly
folded, were all the clothes the couple would need for their journey
to the afterlife complete with patches sewn on by Kha’s wife. In one
corner of the tomb was the board game that Kha and Merit played in
the evenings, and with it the stools they sat on. Because Kha was an
architect, he couldn’t think of going to the next world without the
cubit stick he used to measure his building projects. It’s all there in the
Egyptian Museum in Torino, Italy, packed by Kha and Merit for the
future. 10 They were literally going to take it with them.
But what good were all the clothes you had packed for eternity if
you couldn’t wear them? You needed your body. Enter mummifica-
tion. As every sixth grader can tell you, skilled embalmers removed
the brain through the nose with a long metal hook, the internal organs
through a small abdominal incision, and then they dehydrated the
body so it was preserved and could reanimate in the next world. We
know most of this by examining mummies found in tombs. Like pyra-
mid builders, the embalmers never committed the details of their craft
to papyrus. I was able to fill in some additional details of the process
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
in 1994 when I mummified a human cadaver in the ancient Egyptian
The embalmers weren’t the only ones involved in the immortal-
ity business. There were miners to dig the salts used to dehydrate the
bodies, tomb cutters, artists to decorate tomb walls, coffin makers,
scribes to write books of the dead, and priests to recite the prayers and
perform the rituals needed for resurrection. All this cost money, but the
Egyptians had it. Egypt was primarily a nation of farmers living along
the Nile, but there was also a large middle class that could afford prepa-
rations for the next life. Because Egypt had a strong central govern-
ment (the pharaoh), there was organization and taxation. Farmers grew
crops and an army of bureaucrats recorded information about the crops,
collected taxes, oversaw shipments to government granaries, and made
sure everything was running smoothly. Add to this the hierarchy of
priests, high priests, temple overseers, and other religious professionals
and you have a large middle class who can afford a nice tomb to house
the possessions they are taking to the next world.
Death was big business in ancient Egypt, and its biggest manifesta-
tion is the Great Pyramid of Giza built for one, and only one, pur-
pose — to house the body of the dead king. The pharaoh, the living
Horus, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, needed a tomb that would
protect his mummy and all the goods he would take with him to the
next world, and so the pyramid was created. But it didn’t happen the
way most people think it did — a bright young architect waking up
one morning with the idea of building a pyramid. Rather, the pyramid
shape was the result of hundreds of years of architectural development.
It evolved; it wasn’t invented. To understand the Great Pyramid, you
have to understand the evolution that led up to it, and the beginning of
that evolution is, surprisingly, in London.
O ne of the British Museum’s most popular attractions is a dead
Egyptian nicknamed Ginger because of his light-colored hair.
Ginger died more than 5,000 years ago, centuries before embalming was
invented and the first mummies were created, but still, he is well pre-
served. If you had known him when he was alive, you could still recog-
nize him today after all those centuries. Ginger is a natural mummy, the
Birth of the Pyramid
“Ginger,” a 5,000-year-old mummy in the British Museum, was preserved naturally by burial in
the dry Egyptian sand.
result of his burial in the dry Egyptian sand. In prehistoric times bodies
like Ginger were buried in sand pits in the desert. The sand dehydrated
the bodies quickly, before they could be attacked by bacteria, preserving
them as well as most artificial mummies produced later in the embalm-
ers’ workshops. Ginger lies next to some of his possessions — pots, a reed
mat, a necklace — suggesting that even as early as Ginger’s time, there
was a belief in the next world. Just a few centuries after Ginger’s modest
burial, the Egyptians would be building pyramids. But it was not a giant
leap, not an all-at-once breakthrough; it was a step-by-step journey from
Ginger’s burial to the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The problem with being buried in a sand pit is that the bodies don’t
stay buried — sand blows away, exposing the body to animals. Even
today, if you walk off the tourist paths at Saqqara, ancient Egypt’s larg-
est cemetery, you will sometimes see human bones protruding from
the sand. Consequently, the next advance in ancient Egyptian burial
practices was to bury the dead not in sand, but in bedrock. Clear away
the sand, cut a deep shaft into the bedrock, and dig a burial chamber
beneath the ground. Once the body and all the grave goods were in
the burial chamber, the shaft was filled in with rubble to protect the
body and its possessions. Then, on top of the shaft, above ground, a
Because of their rectangular shape, early
Egyptian tombs were called mastabas —
Arabic for “bench.”
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
chapel was erected where the family could visit the deceased, make of-
ferings, and pay their respects. Because these chapels are rectangular,
the modern Egyptians call them mastabas — Arabic for bench.
They don’t look like much from the outside, kind of like ware-
houses built of limestone blocks, but inside they are spectacular. The
“warehouse” is divided into rooms, each about the size of a large living
room. Some mastabas have a dozen or so rooms, imitating what the
house of a well-heeled nobleman of 4,500 years ago would have looked
like. It’s not the layout that is spectacular, it’s what is on the walls.
Beautiful carvings show the daily life of the ancient Egyptians, letting
the gods know how to treat the deceased. If a man liked duck hunting
in the marshes, there he is on the wall, standing in his papyrus skiff,
flinging his throw stick at a duck. Scenes along the Nile are shown in
such detail that you can identify the species of fish beneath the water.
In one scene a hippopotamus is giving birth, with the newborn emerg-
ing from its mother. Eagerly awaiting the birth is a hungry crocodile.
Other walls show the deceased with his entire family — wife, sons,
daughters, even his servants. It’s the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a
family photo. The idea was that if you showed everyone together, then
they would all be together in the afterlife. The deceased wasn’t buried
in these wonderfully decorated rooms; he was in the chamber beneath
the mastaba. In the aboveground rooms, the family could occasionally
gather for a meal and pay their respects to the deceased. The Egyptians
had a saying, “To say the name of the dead is to make him live again,”
and that’s just what would happen in these rooms.
Mastabas play an important part on the path to pyramids. From Gin-
ger’s humble burial in sand to the chapels of the noblemen of Egypt’s
Old Kingdom, there is no great conceptual leap, merely an obvious
progression. Even I could have come up with the idea of building a
small structure on top of a burial to protect it. We can all understand
why this was done. Jean-Pierre was wrestling with a step quite a bit far-
ther down the road, a step that was, indeed, a quantum leap. To me his
internal ramp theory seemed brilliant, but I’m not a pyramid expert. I
knew that if this unknown architect from Paris was going to be taken
seriously, he needed the support of a real pyramid expert.
Meeting with the Master
D ieter Arnold works on the first floor of New York’s Metro-
politan Museum of Art. To get to his office you walk through
the Met’s fabulous Egyptian galleries. Right in the middle of
the collection is an unmarked door painted the same color as the wall.
Behind this door is a world the public never sees: the offices of the
Egyptian Department. It is a duplex maze of offices, all with books
stacked high on desks, posters on walls advertising exhibitions of Egyp-
tian art at museums around the world. This is where the curators plan
exhibitions, research objects offered for sale to the Museum, and where
Dieter Arnold hangs his hat when not excavating in Egypt.
Dieter literally wrote the book — Building in Egypt — on ancient
Egyptian construction techniques, but he is not an ivory tower aca-
demic. Now in his early sixties, he looks much younger and still retains
the muscular physique he developed climbing the Alps in his younger
days. With his mane of black and silver hair, he is not what the public
expects a brilliant scholar to look like. He has spent his career excavat-
ing and rebuilding pyramids and moving large blocks of stone. When
I have a question on pyramids, I turn to him. So I called Dieter and
explained that Jean-Pierre seemed like the real deal to me. The next
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
day, Jean-Pierre, again dressed in black, met me at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art and behind the unmarked door I introduced Jean-
Pierre to Dieter.
Dieter was in the middle of writing up his season’s excavation report
and I knew his time was precious. After a season in the field moving
stones, recording inscriptions, and restoring walls, the Met’s excava-
tion team take their notes and prepare them for publication. This is
not an easy task and involves coordinating many people with different
skills — photographers, artists, excavators, translators of hieroglyphs; all
have to combine their results to form a coherent picture of the season’s
findings. This was the process Jean-Pierre and I interrupted on a sunny
summer day in New York.
Dieter was warm and welcoming, and Jean-Pierre was quickly
doing his thing on his laptop. I hung back to watch Dieter’s reaction.
At first he was quiet, once in a while interjecting a “Ja, ja” in his slight
German accent, then asking a few questions about a concern he had
about the theory, and with each of Jean-Pierre’s answers, another “Ja.”
Soon Dieter was animatedly discussing the theory. I had asked for fif-
teen minutes, but we stayed for more than an hour. Dieter never said he
agreed with the theory, but clearly he thought it was worth consider-
ing. Jean-Pierre had passed the test. As we were leaving, Dieter casually
mentioned that at one of his early pyramid excavations in the 1980s
they had found traces of something that looked like an internal ramp,
but didn’t know what to make of it. Jean Pierre’s theory was looking
more and more probable.
During our meeting it became clear that while Jean-Pierre probably
knew the Great Pyramid better than any one in the world, his focus
was so narrow that he hardly knew any Egyptology. He thought there
must be papyri discussing specific aspects of pyramid building. Dieter
and I explained there were none. Established pyramid experts had the
big picture, understood the context in which the Pyramid was built,
knew what the civilization was like, but Jean-Pierre had a bad case
of tunnel vision. He knew the blocks of the Pyramid and the tech-
niques needed to build the Pyramid better than any of the experts, but
aside from the nuts-and-bolts details, he was a babe in the woods. Even
today, after hundreds of hours with him, I am not sure Jean-Pierre is
really interested in Egypt; the Pyramid is his passion. It was clear that
he needed help to get his theory tested.
Meeting with the Master
As Jean-Pierre and I parted on the steps of the Metropolitan
Museum, he was elated. He knew that having someone as well re-
garded as Dieter on his side was crucial to his credibility. The meeting
important archaeological discovery of our time. My job would be to
make connections for him, introduce him to other people necessary for
the project’s success, and help him navigate the very narrow channels
of Egyptian bureaucracy.
he internal ramp theory was different from other Egyptological
discoveries. Tutankhamen’s undisturbed tomb is the gold standard
for all archaeological finds. Think of all the treasures, the fabulous art,
the gold mask and coffins. It doesn’t get much better than that. But in
a way, Jean-Pierre ’s discovery is even better. True, it will not produce
any artifacts. If the ramp is indeed inside the Pyramid, it will almost
certainly be empty. The excitement of the internal ramp is intellectual.
If the theory is correct, it gives us a window into one of the greatest in-
tellectual achievements of all time; it shows just how advanced ancient
Egyptian architects were in planning the pyramids, how far ahead they
had to visualize to overcome incredible obstacles. Indeed, ifJean-Pierre
is right about the details of construction, the Pyramid might just be the
most extraordinary engineering accomplishment of all time, a monu-
ment in stone to what the human mind at its best is capable of. When I
first heard Jean-Pierre’s theory I called some Egyptologist friends to try
it out on them. They too were excited. They weren’t all convinced, but
clearly this was big news. Convinced that Jean-Pierre’s theory was the
most important project I could work on, I happily put my own research
on the back burner. If his theory was correct, I wanted to be there
when he took his long walk up that mile-long internal ramp.
with Dieter convinced me that Jean-Pierre’s theory could be the most
Imhotep Builds the
Saqqara, Egypt, 2668 b.c.
O ur architect is Imhotep, but he was far more than just an
architect. He was the royal physician who would later be
deified by the Greeks and Romans as Aesculapius, the god
of healing; he was the vizier, the equivalent of the prime minister of
Egypt, the greatest nation on earth. He was the Leonardo da Vinci of
Egypt, the first recorded genius in history. He also had the puzzling
title of Maker of Stone Vessels — perhaps a hobby to unwind after a
hard day at the office (s). Imhotep lived at the beginning of Egypt’s re-
corded history, at the time when Egypt was just realizing its greatness.
The pharaoh he served was King Zoser. (For a brief description of the
search of Imhotep’s tomb, see Appendix I.)
Egypt dominated the Near East for two reasons: the pharaoh and the
Nile, the more obvious being the Nile. Each year the Nile overflowed
its banks, depositing rich, dark topsoil, fertilizing the land. With this
gift, Egypt could grow more crops than were needed to feed its pop-
ulation of about one million. With all this food, Egypt could afford
a professional standing army. Other countries had to make up their
armies from farmers, carpenters, and whoever else could be rounded
up when it was time to fight. Egypt had its army ready and waiting;
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
no country could withstand such an army. So each year, the Egyptian
army marched out, terrorized other countries, and returned home with
anything that wasn’t nailed down. War was a significant part of the
Egyptian economy and the Nile made this possible. But the Egyptians
had yet another advantage over neighboring countries: the pharaoh.
Ancient Egypt was originally divided into two segments, Upper and
Lower Egypt. Then sometime around 3200 b.c., a king from the south
named Narmer marched north, defeated the northern king, and unified
Egypt into the first nation in history. The story of Narmer ’s conquest
is told on Egypt’s equivalent of the Magna Carta, the Narmer Palette.
The palette has pride of place on the first floor of Cairo’s Egyptian
Museum, just past the entrance. Carved from a single piece of slate, the
palette is about two feet high and three inches thick. On the first side,
Narmer is shown wearing the white crown of the south as he defeats
his northern counterpart. On the flip side, Narmer leads a triumphal
parade and wears the red crown of the north. He is the first king of
both Upper and Lower Egypt. Symbolizing this unification, the palette
shows two mythological creatures with their long necks intertwined.
Egypt is a single nation and Narmer is its king. For 3,000 years, the
icon of Egypt would be the pharaoh smiting his enemy, just as it ap-
peared on the Narmer Palette.
The Narmer Palette is the world’s first historical document. On one side King Narmer wears
the white crown of the south, showing he is king of that region. On the second side of the pal-
ette, Narmer has conquered the north and wears the red crown. Egypt has been unified.
Imhotep Builds the Step Pyramid
From this point on, Egypt would have a king as its ruler, but not an
ordinary king. Unlike other kings of the ancient Near East, Egyptian
pharaohs were gods. Pharaohs had the title King of Upper and Lower
Egypt, but they were also Son of Re — the sun god. Never had such
power been concentrated in the hands of one man. Even the calendar
revolved around the pharaoh. When a new pharaoh was crowned, the
calendar began anew — day 1, year 1 of the reign of Sesostris. When
Sesostris died, the calendar was reset: day 1, year 1 of the reign of
So when Imhotep began building a tomb for his pharaoh, he was in
a unique position. Not only was he the royal architect, but he was also
the prime minister of the wealthiest nation on the planet. He had all
the money he needed and didn’t have to worry about the approval of
committees. If the pharaoh wanted it, it would be built. The only limit
was his imagination, and the brilliant Imhotep conceived of something
totally new, a building in stone.
Like his ancestors, Zoser was going to be buried beneath the ground
with a huge mastaba above the burial chamber, but his mastaba was not
going to be mud brick; it would be stone — the first significant stone
building in history. As the mastaba grew, Imhotep gained confidence in
his ability to build in stone and increased its size. Then came his second
big idea. He would place another mastaba on top of the first, and then
another, and then three more, creating the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, the
world’s first pyramid. At 240 feet high, it is as tall as a modern twenty-
five-story building, its base covering five acres. Probably ten times taller
than any other structure in Egypt, it must have been a source of pride for
the entire nation. Remember, this was a country where even the king
lived in a mud brick palace. Then, all of a sudden, a huge stone building
rises out of the desert. It must have been incredible.
As fantastic as it was, there are signs that the Egyptians were just
learning how to build in stone. The Step Pyramid is solid, there are
no chambers inside, and two clues suggest the Egyptians hadn’t fully
mastered stonework. First, the stones are not squared, their sides are
not precise, and their corners aren’t true right angles. Because they are
irregular, they don’t stack perfectly and some of the forces are directed
outward rather than downward, making the pyramid unstable. To
keep it from collapsing during the later stages of construction, Imho-
tep slanted the external walls of the pyramid inward to counterbalance
The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is
the first stone building in history
Imhotep Builds the Step Pyramid
the outward forces. With all the stones angled toward the center of the
pyramid, it is literally leaning in on itself. 12
The second indication that Imhotep was just learning how to build
in stone is the size of the blocks. They weigh less than 100 pounds each,
small compared with the two-ton blocks that would be used in the
Great Pyramid. Imhotep and his workers had not yet figured out how
to move and lift massive stones; they were just feeling their way. The
blocks look like giant mud bricks, only carved in stone. The Egyptians
were imitating what they knew and were used to.
The Step Pyramid does not stand alone in the desert. Imhotep built
a virtual city in stone for Zoser, complete with chapels, houses, stat-
ues — literally a petrified city. The pyramid complex is surrounded by a
stone enclosure wall twenty feet high. Every few yards a false door was
cut into the wall to look like a door, but there’s only one real entrance.
When you step through this entrance, there are signs all around that
you are at the birthplace of building in stone. Most tourists don’t see
it; you have to know what to look for. You walk into a long hallway,
but really you are inside a stone model of what an ancient palace built
of wood and reeds looked like. Above your head, the ceiling sculpted
in stone imitates the wooden beams of a palace. To the left and right of
you are huge doors twelve feet high and eight feet wide, complete with
hinges, but they will never swing shut; they are constructed of stone
blocks. Think of giant Legos and you won’t be very wrong. As you
continue into Zoser’s pyramid complex, you walk between two rows
of stone columns, carved to look like bundles of papyri. Look closely
and you will see that these columns are not freestanding, they are “en-
gaged,” attached to the walls; Imhotep probably wasn’t sure if stone
columns could stand alone.
The Step Pyramid is an incredibly bold venture for the first build-
ing in stone. You would expect smaller stone structures to come first,
and then increase in size as Egypt worked up to something the size of
the Step Pyramid. But no, there are no earlier stone buildings in Egypt.
It’s not that they’re out there and archaeologists just haven’t found them
yet. There are plenty of remains of early buildings and tombs, but they
were all mud brick. If there were stone buildings, some would have
been preserved. With no prior experience, Imhotep constructed the
first building in stone — and the largest structure in the world.
The pyramid is an impressive monument, but the burial chambers
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
beneath it are just as impressive. The corridors and rooms stretch for
more than three miles. Imagine one of those crazy English maze gar-
dens, only much bigger and carved out of bedrock a hundred feet below
ground, and you’ll have some idea of where King Zoser was laid to
rest. It’s more like something you’d expect beneath the Pentagon than
the burial site of an ancient king. It’s mostly corridors, but every now
and then there is a rectangular room cut from the rock to hold the pha-
raoh’s treasures. Some of the rooms are still crammed with thousands
of stone pots and vases for Zoser ’s journey to the next world. Inside
the burial chamber, carved reliefs show the king running during the
ritual of the Heb-Sed Festival, ensuring that he will be young forever.
Some walls are lined with beautiful blue-green ceramic tiles, imitating
the woven reed mats that covered the mud brick palace walls. Again,
Imhotep was imitating the building materials of the living in a more
durable substance suited for eternity.
Imhotep conceived many innovations for his pharaoh’s burial place;
the most puzzling is called the Southern Burial. A quarter of a mile
south of the Step Pyramid is a second burial chamber for Zoser. It is
not a pyramid, and today just looks like a deep hole in the ground —
a shaft leads to a single burial chamber carved in the bedrock. Here
too beautiful blue-green ceramic tiles decorate the walls, and there are
scenes of Zoser running in the Heb-Sed Festival, but the chamber is
really too small for a burial. Some have suggested that Zoser had two
tombs, one northern, one southern, to emphasize that he was king of
both Upper and Lower Egypt. The southern one was a cenotaph, a
false burial chamber.
Sneferu: King of the Pyramids
Meidum, Egypt, 2613 b.c.
I mhotep’s great creation, the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, sparked a
frenzy of construction in Egypt, and a nation of farmers became
a nation of builders. It is even possible that Imhotep went on to
design a second step pyramid for Zoser’s successor, King Sekhem-
Khet, whose pyramid was discovered in the 1950s (see Appendix II).
After building several step pyramids, Egypt would go on to erect even
greater monuments — and one of the strangest of these is the Meidum
The pyramid at Meidum sits isolated in the desert about fifty miles
south of Saqqara. Rarely visited by tourists, it is a crucial step in Egypt’s
march toward the Great Pyramid. As soon as you see the Meidum Pyr-
amid you know something went wrong. Looking more like a medieval
fortress than a pyramid, it seems almost sinister. In the 1960s, Kurt
Mendelssohn, an Oxford University physicist, theorized that the walls
of the pyramid collapsed during construction because the angle of the
pyramid was too steep. 13 He believed the mound of sand at its base
hid the top of the pyramid that came crashing down. However, recent
excavations of the mound show that the collapse theory is wrong; the
mound consists primarily of windblown sand. Egyptologists now agree
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
that the reason for the pyramid’s ruinous state was that local villag-
ers used it as a quarry for stone, stripping it of its fine white limestone
casing. But there’s still a mystery. The pyramid was never used for the
pharaoh’s burial, and no one knows why.
There is a temple next to the pyramid where priests would have
made offerings for the dead king. On top of the temple are two stelae —
round-topped stones that served as ancient Egypt’s bulletin boards. If
you wanted something known, you carved it on a stela and put it where
everyone could see it. The two stelae at the Meidum Pyramid should
have the king’s name and titles, but they are totally blank; they were
never inscribed — a dead giveaway that the king never used the pyra-
mid. The unfinished burial chamber inside the pyramid offers another
clue that the pyramid was never used, but within it rests a milestone in
the history of pyramid building.
The burial chamber inside the Meidum Pyramid is the first above-
ground burial in Egypt, a radical break from the underground burial
chamber concept of the Step Pyramid. The owner of the Meidum Pyr-
amid was going to be buried in the pyramid, not under it. To be buried
inside a pyramid, a major engineering problem had to be solved. If the
burial chamber is inside the pyramid, then the ceiling of the chamber
must support the hundreds of thousands of tons above it. Constructing
a room inside a pyramid had never been tried before and the architect
of the Meidum Pyramid came up with an ingenious solution — a cor-
With a corbelled ceiling, the walls narrow as they get higher. As you
build the wall out of stone blocks, each level is placed about six inches
in from the one beneath it, so it overlaps and looks like an upside-down
staircase. Thus, when you get to the top, the block spanning the walls
and forming the ceiling is only a few inches wide. A block only a few
inches wide is not going to crack under the weight above it, thus the
problem of how to build an internal room is solved.
The innovation of a room inside the pyramid was not the only en-
gineering advance at Meidum; the Meidum Pyramid is also the first
attempt at a true pyramid. It began as a stepped pyramid, but some
time near the end of its construction the architect had the idea to fill
in the steps. We don’t know why the project was abandoned, but there
must have been a very good reason — a significant percentage of Egypt’s
economy had been poured into creating the largest building on earth,
A corbelled ceiling in the Meidum Pyramid made it possible to have a burial chamber inside the
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
yet it was never used. Some think the outer casing blocks were not se-
curely tied in to the rest of the pyramid and began slipping, but this is
far from certain. 14 We do know that the pharaoh was never buried in
the unfinished burial chamber, and by a stroke of good luck, we know
who this pharaoh was.
During the 18th Dynasty — about a thousand years after the Meidum
Pyramid was abandoned — a scribe named Akheperkare-seneb visited
the abandoned pyramid. By this time, the era of pyramid building was
long over and no doubt he walked around wondering at its construction.
He would have strolled down to the Valley Temple, about a quarter of
a mile from the pyramid. It was probably intended that the deceased
pharaoh be mummified inside the temple, but it too was never used.
Akheperkare-seneb walked up the causeway connecting the Valley
Temple with the pyramid and came to the mortuary chapel next to the
pyramid, where priests would have made the daily offerings that en-
sured continued existence for the soul of their king. He paused in this
chapel as sunlight streamed in. He took his scribe’s palette, dipped his
reed brush into a bit of water, touched it to his block of black ink and
wrote on the wall: “On the twelfth day of the fourth month of summer,
in the 41st year of King Tuthmosis III, the scribe Akheperkare-seneb,
son of Ammenmesu, came to see the beautiful temple of King Sneferu.
He found it as though heaven were in it, and the sun rising in it.”
Then he added: “May heaven rain with fresh myrrh, may it drip with
incense upon the roof of the temple of King Sneferu.” Because of this
ancient graffito, we know that the Meidum Pyramid was built by King
Sneferu, but this was not his only pyramid.
Abandoning the Meidum Pyramid left Sneferu without a burial
place, so a second pyramid had to be constructed. It is even possible that
while the Meidum Pyramid was under construction, Sneferu’s second
pyramid was also being built. After all, Zoser had two burials, the Step
Pyramid and his “southern burial,” so Sneferu may have always in-
tended to have two pyramids. The second one, at Dashur, about thirty
miles north of Meidum, is the first pyramid designed from the begin-
ning to be a true pyramid, one with smooth sides.
There is a popular tendency to credit the Egyptians with more
knowledge than they actually had. Even the Greek philosopher Plato
believed that the legendary mathematicians of his past such as Thales of
Miletus and Pythagoras had studied in Egypt. 15 The truth is, the Egyp-
Sneferu: King of the Pyramids
tians only had very basic mathematical skills and probably didn’t teach
the Greeks anything . 16 It doesn’t take higher mathematics to build a
pyramid, but it does take manpower and almost superhuman precision,
which we will see when we examine the construction of the Great
Pyramid. Ancient architects had no way to calculate load-bearing ca-
pacities of various materials, so they worked by trial and error. Keep
piling blocks on top of a granite beam until it cracks; then you know
what it can support. This kind of construction can lead to disaster, and
in the history of pyramid construction no disaster stands out more than
Sneferu’s second pyramid, the Bent Pyramid of Dashur.
Pyramids may all look alike, but each one is unique, with each ar-
chitect trying to outdo the other. The Bent Pyramid is the first pyr-
amid to have two entrances and two burial chambers — it’s the new,
improved, deluxe model. When they were built, the burial chambers
were the most spectacular interior spaces on earth. The corbelling used
so tentatively in Sneferu’s pyramid at Meidum is perfected at Dashur,
where the Bent Pyramid stands. All four sides of the rooms are stepped
inward so that the entire room gradually narrows toward the top, yield-
ing a dizzying view to the ceiling fifty-five feet above the floor. One of
the two burial chambers was undoubtedly intended for Sneferu and the
other was probably for his Great Wife, Queen Hetepheres, but neither
was ever buried inside. Incredibly, this pyramid was also abandoned,
but in this case we know why.
About two-thirds up the face of the pyramid the angle of incline
bends, giving the pyramid its distinctive shape and name. The bend is
the result of one of the costliest engineering disasters ever. Pyramids are
The corbelling inside the
Bent Pyramid soars upward
for fifty-five feet on all four
sides. In the center is the
ladder build by the Antiqui-
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
never constructed on sand; sand shifts, blocks move, and the pyramid
would collapse. Pyramids are built on bedrock, and the Bent Pyramid
is no exception. However, one corner of the pyramid rested on a layer
of gravel, making that one corner unstable. During the early stages of
construction there were no problems, but as the pyramid grew taller
and its mass increased, the weight from the blocks on the corner resting
on gravel caused those blocks to shift. This movement was transmitted
inside the pyramid and the walls of the upper burial chamber cracked
and started moving inward. In a desperate attempt to stop the room
from imploding, the ancient engineers wedged huge fifty-foot cedar
of Lebanon logs between opposite walls to keep them from collaps-
ing. This stabilized the pyramid, but clearly it was no longer suitable
for Sneferu’s burial. It could, however, serve as his symbolic burial,
one of the two burials that pharaohs now had, one for Upper and one
for Lower Egypt. The pyramid was completed as quickly and inex-
pensively as possible, and this is why its angle was changed. Having a
gentler slope at the top greatly reduced the number of blocks in the top
third of the pyramid and also reduced the weight on the fragile burial
chamber. I can just imagine the discussion between the architects when
the burial chamber cracked: “You tell the pharaoh.” “No, you tell the
pharaoh.” Sneferu was now in a very difficult position. He had built the
two largest buildings on earth and neither was suitable for his burial.
Time was running out for the aging pharaoh.
Sneferu did not give up on pyramids. With two disasters behind
him, he built his third pyramid at Dashur, just a mile from the unused
Bent Pyramid. Because it gleams red in the sunlight, it is known as the
Red Pyramid. There are clear indications that Sneferu wasn’t taking
any chances with this one; it had to succeed. Unlike all the earlier pyr-
amids, it has a gentle 42-degree slope compared with 53 for the Bent
and Meidum Pyramids. The gentle slope accomplished two things:
first, it reduced the number of stones needed to build the pyramid.
Sneferu was getting old and wanted to reduce building time. Second, a
gentler slope reduced the chances of more construction disasters. In the
Red Pyramid, there are no indications of construction problems, and
Sneferu was undoubtedly laid to rest inside it, the first true pyramid in
Sneferu’s three pyramids — Meidum, the Bent, and the Red — con-
stitute the most intense building spurt in history. Under one pharaoh,
Sneferu: King of the Pyramids
Egypt built the three largest buildings on earth, developed the first true
pyramid, and invented the corbelled ceiling so burials could be above
ground, high up in the pyramid. In television programs and popular
books about pyramids, the focus is almost always on King Khufu, the
builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza. However, it is really Khufu’s
father, Sneferu, who taught Egypt how to build pyramids. A thousand
years after Sneferu’s death, when someone did something impressive,
he would say, “Not since the time of Sneferu has its like been done.”
In ancient Egypt, the profession of architect was often handed down
from father to son. The architects of the largest pyramids ever built —
the Great Pyramid and the pyramid of King Kephren — were uncle and
nephew. When boys see their fathers and uncles building great things,
they want to also. So it was with Jean-Pierre and his father.
The Red Pyramid was the third pyramid built by King Sneferu.
An Architect Is Born
I n the years immediately following World War I, France experi-
enced a strange but understandable birth pattern. Families were
having only one child. The country had been devastated by the
war, times were hard, and everyone’s energies were directed toward
rebuilding the country. The phenomenon affected French society for
generations. With the typical nuclear family of father, mother, and only
child, much of the following generation would grow up with no uncles,
aunts, or cousins. These “only children” born after World War I would
come of age during World War II and bear much of the brunt of that
war. Jean-Pierre’s father was one of them.
Rushed through engineering school so he could help the war effort
by building runways for the air force, Henri Houdin gained a lot of ex-
perience very fast. The same year he was graduated from the Ecole des
Arts et Metiers, Renee Mesana was graduating as a physician and setting
up her practice near Paris. With many male physicians away at war, her
services were urgently needed for the civilian population and she too was
gaining experience rapidly. One of her first house calls just after the war
was to treat Henri’s sick grandmother, but Henri and Renee never spoke.
He did, however, notice “the pretty young physician in the convertible.”
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
When the war finally ended there was rejoicing, but much of France
had again been destroyed by German bombs and had to be rebuilt. If
you could build a bridge or repair a road, you had a promising future.
With more than 7,000 bridges in need of rebuilding, young engineers
were given tremendous responsibilities. Thus, in 1947, twenty-four-
year-old Henri Houdin was placed in charge of rebuilding the Con-
flans Bridge outside of Paris. The first of his many successes, the bridge
was completed on schedule and within budget. Soon he was being
given other major projects and responsibilities. Although they hadn’t
yet spoken, Renee’s career was paralleling Henri’s; her practice was
growing and her skills increasing at a postwar pace. When they met at
the wedding of a mutual friend, the two young professionals were im-
mediately attracted to each other; in less than a year they married. As
they settled into their Paris apartment and planned their family, neither
could have foreseen that their children would be raised in Africa.
In 1949 Bernard, their first child, was born, and the following year
Henri was sent to Ivory Coast to evaluate building projects. Ivory Coast
was a French protectorate and with the war behind her, France had the
resources to develop her colonies. Henri discovered that Ivory Coast
had such enormous infrastructure needs that an entire company had to
be established for all the building. Soon, Henri, Renee, and baby Ber-
nard were settled in Abidjan.
In 1951 Jean-Pierre was born, and now the family was complete.
When she wasn’t taking care of the two boys, Renee served as com-
pany physician, treating sick or injured workers and anyone else need-
ing a doctor’s services. Henri was constantly building — roads, dams,
water towers, schools — but because of his experience in France, bridges
became his specialty. France still had plenty of war surplus and several
of the bridges in Ivory Coast were built from Mulberry bridges con-
structed for the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Henri’s biggest project
was the huge Houphouet Boigny Bridge linking two districts of the
capital, Abidjan, by spanning a lagoon.
Before the bridge could be built, a study had to be completed to
make sure that the underwater soil on which the piers would rest could
support a bridge. The government sent Jean Kerisel, a ground specialist,
to perform the necessary tests. Soon after his arrival Kerisel fell ill and
was eager to return to France, but Jean-Pierre ’s physician mother cured
him and he remained in Ivory Coast to complete his study. A bond
Henri and Renee Houdin in Africa in the early 1950s.
formed between engineer Henri and the ground specialist. Perhaps it
was the fact that Henri’s wife had cured Kerisel, perhaps it was the
shared difficulties of building the bridge, but the two men remained
friends for life. Nearly half a century after their first project together,
both were trying to figure out how the Great Pyramid was built.
The bridge they built was an engineering marvel of its day, with a
highway on top and two concrete tunnels acting as beams beneath the
highway through which trains ran. Sections of the concrete tunnels
were poured on the ground and then lifted into place by huge cranes
on barges. During the three years it took to build, Bernard and Jean-
Pierre frequently accompanied their father to watch the construction.
When it was inaugurated in March of 1958 fabulous fireworks lit up
the night sky, something the brothers would remember for the rest of
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
Bernard enjoyed visiting work sites with his father, but it was Jean-
Pierre who wanted to know how everything worked. He grew up
playing among bulldozers, cranes, Dumpsters, and trucks, all painted
bright orange because in Ivory Coast the soil is reddish orange laterite
and the dust won’t show on orange-colored machinery.
Growing up in Ivory Coast in the 1950s was heaven for the two
boys. They attended a neighborhood school and easily made friends
with both the local boys and the children of the construction com-
pany’s employees. There were soccer, swimming pools, and on week-
ends Henri would often fill the big Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon
with the family and the boys’ friends and drive to the beach or to a
construction site for a picnic. Even illness could be turned into an
adventure. An epidemic of whooping cough hit Ivory Coast, and
both boys and two of the neighbor’s children came down with it. In
the 1950s a cutting-edge cure for the pulmonary complications of
whooping cough involved decompressing the lungs on a high-alti-
tude flight. Jean-Pierre’s physician mother bundled the four children
up and took them on a round-trip ride on a Douglas DC— 3. All the
patients survived. It was a wonderful, unforgettable childhood, but
time was approaching for the brothers’ higher education and Africa
had to be left behind.
The Houdins returned to Paris and bought an apartment near the
Arc de Triomphe, and both boys attended the Lycee Carnot, one of
the most prestigious schools in France. Jean-Pierre struggled to get his
baccalaureate, starting in mathematics but ending with a degree in phi-
losophy. While the boys were in school, Henri was flying all over the
world building bridges and roads in Ivory Coast, Tahiti, New Caledo-
nia, Lebanon, and Greece. Renee returned to school to study industrial
medicine. In the 1960s, way ahead of her time, she was one of the first
experts to alert the public to the dangers of asbestos.
In 1970, Jean-Pierre entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to begin six
years of architectural studies. Finally life started in earnest. Working
part-time in an architectural firm drawing plans and doing calculations,
he learned the practical aspects of building while studying architectural
design at school. After an undistinguished career at the Lycee, Beaux-
Arts was a piece of cake. Every architecture student had to design a
project in his last year and Jean-Pierre’s avant-garde solar house was a
hit with his professors.
An Architect Is Born
Soon after graduation, Jean-Pierre took his plans for the solar house
and boarded a DC— 10 for Ivory Coast, intending to convince the gov-
ernment to go solar. They would have none of it, so he returned home
and joined his father’s construction business as an architect in residence.
In 1987 the housing market declined, and Henri decided to close the
company and retire. Jean-Pierre opened a private practice and contin-
ued to design condos and offices for clients, gaining experience in all
aspects of construction. In the meantime Jean-Pierre also gained a wife,
Michelle, a beautiful artist deeply involved in the Paris art community.
Jean-Pierre was doing well enough in his new architectural prac-
tice that he, Michelle, and an engineer friend named Laurent bought
the bakery across the street from their apartment, and in 1986 opened
a cafe called Les Enfants Gates (The Rotten Kids), that Jean-Pierre
and Laurent designed as a 1920s salon. It was a great success and soon
became a meeting place for artists, actors, and writers. The three
introduced the idea of Sunday brunch to Paris and soon Americans
were gathering there on weekends. The cafe was such a success that
Michelle was able to open Gallery 43 in the limestone basement be-
neath the cafe. Young artists were invited to show their art free, with
a preview offered in the cafe above. Les Enfants Gates launched many
young artists’ careers.
For nearly a decade, the cafe and gallery were a great success, but
after ten years it was becoming old hat. Michelle feared they were
“doing the routine.” They had to move on, but to where and to what?
Jean-Pierre ’s architectural practice had been good to them and the
cafe was doing so well financially that they were able to sell it for
enough money to take time off and search for something new. In the
fall of 1996, the couple rented their apartment and left for New York
in search of an idea. They were secure enough that they made their
escape in style, aboard the Concorde. After hors d’oeuvres and cham-
pagne at the Concorde departure lounge with fellow passenger Calvin
Klein and other celebrities, the adventurers boarded the plane at 11:00
a.m. and took off with a big push forcing them back in their seats like
jet fighter pilots. Soon after leaving the coast of Brittany behind, the
Concorde passed the speed of sound and kept climbing. After an hour
the Machmeter in the front of the plane indicated Mach 2, twice the
speed of sound, and the plane leveled off at 54,000 feet. Everything
was silent and from the Concorde’s small windows they could detect
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
the earth’s curvature. After a fabulous lunch, an announcement came
through the cabin. They were beginning their descent into JFK and
would be landing in twenty minutes, at 8:30 a.m. local time — two
and a half hours earlier than they had left Paris. They had traveled
faster than the sun.
New York, 1996
W hen Jean-Pierre and Michelle landed at Kennedy Airport
they had no agenda, but enough money to hold out for a
year. Comfortable in the art scene, they rented a friend’s
apartment in Greenwich Village. At first Jean-Pierre spent his days
walking the city, taking in the architecture and energy. In the mid-
1990s, New York was where things were happening, and although
Jean-Pierre didn’t know what was in store for him, he sensed he would
find it here. On one of his wanderings he found himself looking into a
window of a large computer store on Fifth Avenue. Fascinated, he went
inside to look and left with a heavy computer in his arms.
The Internet was growing fast and Jean-Pierre realized this world
might be for him — a computer, the Internet, no office, perhaps he could
work anywhere. Enough of concrete and steel buildings, the computer
was his road to a new freedom. At the same time that the Internet was
growing, architecture was changing. Drawings and plans were no longer
produced by hand. Now everything was being designed on computers.
Fascinated with the new graphics programs available to architects, Jean-
Pierre spent month after month learning, experimenting, seeing what
could be done, and wondering how he could use these new skills. He
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
could design Web sites. While Jean-Pierre improved his computer skills,
Michelle visited an average of twenty art galleries a week, taking in the
New York art scene. She too was looking for a new direction and was
interested in seeing how the new technologies were affecting art.
After several months in New York, they were ready to see Amer-
ica. They drove a rented car to Washington, D.C., to see the nation’s
capital, and then flew to Las Vegas. From there they drove across the
American west — Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico — and it was there
that Jean-Pierre became the Man in Black. It wasn’t a fashion state-
ment; it was a laundering decision. Michelle always wore black. As they
traveled across the country they used Laundromats — it was easier if the
wash was all one color.
In Colorado they visited Hoover Dam, one of the most massive con-
struction projects in modern times. A more than 600-foot-thick base
supports 700-foot walls. Built during the Depression, 3.3 million cubic
meters of concrete — a mass greater than the Great Pyramid — were
poured by 5,000 workers in less than five years. A modern engineering
marvel, it had many similarities to the Great Pyramid, but Jean-Pierre
wouldn’t know that for several years. They visited San Francisco and
Los Angeles, and then they were finally ready to return home. Almost
exactly one year after they had departed on the Concorde, they flew
back to Paris.
In October the tenant who had rented their apartment moved out,
so they moved back into their wonderful apartment, a duplex in a sev-
enteenth-century landmarked building in the Marais district of Paris.
They were back in familiar surroundings, but not in the old routine.
The American adventure had depleted their bank account, so it was
time to go back to work. With his new computer graphics skills, Jean-
Pierre began designing Web sites for architects with his engineer friend
Laurent, who was also reinventing himself. Business was good; every-
one wanted a Web site. Jean-Pierre had his freedom; he could go any-
where with his computer and earn a living.
By mid— 1998 he and Michelle decided to cut the cord even further.
They sold their apartment and began a life on the road, from apartment
to apartment, no permanent address, no fixed duties. They would “live
full time.” The urgency for life came from Michelle. Both her parents
had died early, and on the day after her mother’s death in 1992, she
turned to Jean-Pierre and said, “I would like to drink a little Cham-
pagne every evening.” It is a ritual they have kept since that day.
Life was good. The idea Jean-Pierre was looking for had still not
come to him. When it did, it would be thanks to two builders: his
father and an ancient Egyptian architect.
A Troubled Bridge?
Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 1997
A fter Jean-Pierre’s failed attempt to sell solar houses to the
government of Ivory Coast, he never returned. His brother
Bernard, however, maintained connections, and has dual
Ivory Coast and French citizenship. On a trip to Abidjan he heard
rumors that the bridge his father built was in danger of collapsing —
the piers were weakening. He quickly informed his father and Henri
notified the French authorities, as France was still responsible for
the bridge. A committee to study the problem was established. Jean
Kerisel, the engineer cured by Jean-Pierre’s mother, was responsible
for the piers and was placed on the committee, as was Henri Houdin.
After forty years, the two were working together again. Their meet-
ings led President Chirac to allocate funds to inspect and monitor
the bridge. During this time in 1997, Kerisel told Henri of his new
In the 1980s, Cairo was building its new underground metro system
and Kerisel was on the team doing the soil survey. While in Cairo he
made several trips to Giza to visit the Great Pyramid and became fas-
cinated with the engineering problems that had to be solved to build
such a monument. By now he was somewhat of an expert on pyramid
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
building. In late 1998, Jean Kerisel was interviewed for a television
documentary about pyramids and told Henri Houdin to watch for it.
The show, The Mystery of the Pyramids, presented by Francois de
Closets, a well-known French television personality, was quite good.
It covered the usual ground, discussing the possibility of the straight
ramp and its problems and then the idea of a ramp corkscrewing up the
outside of the Pyramid. Henri was intrigued and listened attentively
as Egyptologists presented their theories of how the Great Pyramid
was built. Ninety-year-old Jean-Fran^ois Lauer, the elder statesman of
pyramid experts, told his theory; right next to Lauer sat Henri’s old
friend Jean Kerisel. But Henri knew their theories were wrong. They
were approaching the solution from the wrong side — the outside! Ev-
eryone seemed to think the pyramid is basically a huge sugar cube-
type construction. Figure out a way to pile blocks up higher and higher
and then just leave some out to form the chambers inside. But Henri’s
engineer’s brain was kicking in; he knew it didn’t work that way. You
had to think about the interior first. Visualize the building of the inte-
rior chambers — the King’s Chamber, the Queen’s Chamber, the Grand
Gallery. What construction techniques would be needed? What kinds
of stone? How big would the stones be? Answers to questions like these
determine how to build the outside of the pyramid. Excited by his
idea, he called his architect son and blurted out, “The pyramids were
not built from the outside, but from the inside.”
Hemienu Plans the
Giza, Egypt, 2589 b.c. (Year i in the reign of Khufu)
I t was a momentous day when Sneferu, king of Upper and Lower
Egypt, the Great God, died sometime around 2590 b.c., but the
date of his death and the details of the funeral of one of Egypt’s
greatest pharaohs went unrecorded. This seems incredible to us, living
in a society that wants every possible detail of Princess Diana’s death
and is still debating how JFK died, but things were different in ancient
Egypt. Death was a defeat and Egyptian scribes only recorded victories.
History was not intended to record objective facts; it was to present the
glories of a nation for others to see and wonder at. This leaves Egyp-
tologists with the task of sifting through fragments of information to
piece together the details of a pharaoh’s death.
For the reign of Sneferu, one of the most important fragments is the
Palermo Stone, a chunk of black diorite in the Regional Museum of
Archeology in Sicily. Originally the stone was more than six feet long,
and inscribed on its polished surface were the names and reigns of more
than 200 kings of Egypt. The fragment in Palermo is only thirteen
inches wide and ten inches long, but it lists the earliest pharaohs, in-
cluding Sneferu. It recounts the major events during the various kings’
reigns and from it we learn that Sneferu sent a trading expedition to
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
Lebanon to obtain cedar for building boats and the doors of the great
temples of Egypt. It must have been a successful mission; forty ships
laden with huge logs returned home to Egypt. Fragments like the Pal-
ermo Stone are the bits and pieces from which Egyptologists recon-
struct ancient lives, but they don’t give us the exact date of a pharaoh’s
death. There are two reasons for this. As we noted before, the Egyp-
tians viewed death as a defeat, but they also had a unique calendar.
The Egyptians didn’t number their years consecutively. Our year
2008 will be followed by 2009, but in ancient Egypt when a new king
like Sneferu ascended the throne, the calendar began anew with: “Day
1, Year 1 in the reign of Sneferu.” The only reason we know Sneferu
died in 2590 b.c. is that a few events such as total solar eclipses men-
tioned in ancient Egyptian records can be dated accurately in terms
of our calendar. Let’s say that an ancient Egyptian papyrus written
during the reign of Ramses the Great mentions that a solar eclipse took
place. Using our calendar, astronomers calculate exactly when the solar
eclipse took place and then Egyptologists count backward to get dates
for reigns of the earlier kings. Based on evidence like this, our best bet
for Sneferu’s death is 2590 b.c.
We can be sure, however, that when Sneferu died, all of Egypt
mourned. Under his rule Egypt became an international power, sending
trading expeditions to Lebanon for cedar and to the Sinai for turquoise
and copper. Sneferu ushered in the era of the great pyramids, but there
is another reason to believe Egypt mourned his passing. It is recorded on
the Westcar Papyrus, located in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.
Before the Egyptians invented papyrus, writing was done on clay
tablets. After being inscribed, the damp clay tablets were baked in a
kiln to be preserved. It was an expensive and tedious process to form
a tablet out of clay, inscribe it with a stylus, and then bake it. Send-
ing letters abroad was not easy; great care had to be taken that the
tablets didn’t crumble and break. The Mesopotamians even had spe-
cial envelopes, also baked, to protect them. The invention of papyrus
(from which we get our word “paper”) created a literary boom. All
of a sudden, writing was easy. Sheets of paper made from strips of the
papyrus plant were glued together in long rolls that could be written
on with a brush. No more baking of tablets, no problem transporting
the writings — the publishing industry took off. The Egyptians wrote
everything on papyrus, religious texts, battle accounts, magical spells,
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
even fiction. The Westcar Papyrus, named after its owner, contains a
series of magical stories told by Sneferu’s grandson, Prince Bauefre, the
Stephen King of ancient Egypt . 17
One of the stories tells us that Sneferu was walking through the
palace one day, feeling bored, with a “sickness of the heart.” He called
his palace magician, Djadja-em-ankh, and asked what he should do.
The magician suggested His Majesty take a boat out on his pleasure
lake and that he invite the beautiful young ladies of the palace to do
the rowing. Sneferu liked the idea and improved on it. He commanded
that twenty fishnet dresses be brought for the young ladies to wear as
they rowed. The plan worked. “The heart of his majesty was happy
at the sight of their rowing.” However, suddenly everything stopped.
One of the lovely rowers was upset, having dropped overboard a tur-
quoise fish amulet that she was wearing. Sneferu offered to replace it;
he wanted the rowing to continue, but the young maiden cried that she
wanted only her lost amulet, not another.
Sneferu, once again, summoned the ingenious Djadja-em-ankh. The
magician caused the waters of the lake to part, retrieved the amulet,
and returned it to the young lady, and the rowing continued. Pretty
impressive stuff from a palace magician! Remember, this is all happen-
ing a thousand years before Moses parted the Red Sea. But even as an-
cient Egyptian magical tales go, there is something extremely unusual
about the story. It gives us insight into the personality of a pharaoh.
Think about it. Sneferu is king of Egypt, a god on earth, but a palace
handmaiden is comfortable enough in his presence to refuse his offer
to replace the amulet. And to Sneferu’s credit he doesn’t respond with
“Off with her head.” He’s concerned, understanding. He’s a pharaoh
we are supposed to like. It’s hard for us to grasp how long ago Sneferu
lived, but think about it this way: this story gives us the earliest anec-
dote ever about an historical character. Sneferu is the first individual in
Soon after Sneferu’s death, his body was ferried across the Nile,
from the east bank to the west. The west was associated with death be-
cause the Egyptian religion was primarily a solar cult and they believed
that the sun god, Re, died in the west at the end of every day and was
reborn at dawn in the east. Cemeteries were on the west bank, and
this is where embalmers set up their workshops, far from the living.
Sneferu’s body was ferried across the Nile to the royal embalmers in an
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
elegant funerary boat specially constructed for the king’s last voyage.
This huge 150-foot ship had a special cabin on the deck to shelter the
king’s body. We know what Sneferu’s funerary boat looked like because
of the sharp eyes of an Egyptian Antiquities Service official.
I n 1954 the Egyptian Antiquities Service was clearing debris near the
Great Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza Plateau when a young archae-
ologist, Kamal el-Mallakh, noticed that the ancient wall enclosing the
Great Pyramid was not exactly symmetrical — the wall on the south
side was fifteen feet closer to the base of the Pyramid than the walls
on the other sides. Careful inspection revealed that the south wall had
been built asymmetrically to conceal something beneath it. The wall
was taken down, revealing forty-one massive limestone blocks cover-
ing a pit cut into the bedrock.
After the limestone blocks were removed, the excavators discovered
a 144-foot-long boat that had been disassembled and carefully placed in
the pit. The 1,224 pieces of wood had been stacked in thirteen layers
and, amazingly, the wood was so well preserved that an attempt could
be made to reconstruct the boat. Although it resembled a giant boat
model kit, the pieces did not come with an instruction booklet. It
took twenty years of trial and error to reconstruct it. In the process, a
great deal was learned about how wooden boats were built in ancient
The Boat Beneath the Pyramid, as it became known, wasn’t con-
structed like a modern boat. Modern boats are built from the inside
out. A framing of ribs is nailed together and then the boat’s hull — the
outside planking — is nailed to the ribs. 19 Ancient Egyptian boat build-
ers did the opposite. They built a boat from the outside in and never
used ribs! The hull of Khufu ’s boat, found next to the Great Pyramid,
is made of huge cedar planks, some seventy feet long and six inches
thick. No trees growing in Lebanon today are tall enough to provide
such boards. These planks were carved to create the curve of the boat.
(Modern boat builders steam and bend the planks to get a curve.) You
can still see the marks on the planks made by the boat builders’ copper
chisels as they shaped the boards. The planks were not nailed together
as in later boat building, but were tied together with strong rope made
from hemp. Once the hull was formed by these tied planks, wood struts
The Cheops boat may have been intended to ferry the dead king from the realm of the living to
the realm of the dead.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
were fitted inside the hull to give the boat structural strength. This
kind of boat, held together entirely by rope, is called a sewn boat.
The reassembly led to another mystery. No one could figure out
how the boat had been used. It didn’t have a mast or sails, so it couldn’t
have sailed. Ten giant oars, fifteen feet long, were found with the boat,
but there were no oarlocks, nor was it clear where the rowers could
have stood on the deck. How was the boat propelled if it didn’t sail and
wasn’t rowed? Another puzzle was the cabin on the boat’s deck. It is to-
tally enclosed, with no windows for ventilation or light. This dark and
airless cabin provides a clue to the boat’s actual function.
Let’s start with the problem of how the boat moved. If it wasn’t self-
propelled, it could have been towed by other boats. We know from
tomb paintings that some ceremonial boats were pulled by other boats
that had sails and usable oars. But for what ceremony was Khufu’s boat
used? This is where the airless cabin comes in. The Khufu boat was
used only once, for the pharaoh’s funeral. We can easily imagine the
body of the pharaoh inside the dark, airless cabin, shielded from the
mourners who lined the banks of the Nile. This boat was found next to
Khufu’s pyramid and was his, but Sneferu would undoubtedly have had
a boat similar to the Giza boat to transport his body to the embalmers’
workshop in the west.
A s Egypt mourned for Sneferu, a skilled team of embalmers worked
in seclusion for seventy days to prepare his body for its final jour-
ney to the next world. They began by making a three-and-a-half-inch
incision on the left side of the abdomen through which they would
remove the internal organs. These professionals knew anatomy. They
understood that the internal organs contained water that would cause
the pharaoh’s body to decay; in order for the pharaoh’s body to last for
eternity, all moisture had to be removed. Beginning with the spleen,
the embalmers worked carefully, removing the intestines, stomach, and
liver. Working upward, they cut through the diaphragm, entering the
thoracic cavity, carefully removing the lungs without disturbing the
heart. Sneferu would need his heart to remember the magical spells
he had to recite in order to be resurrected. The Egyptians believed
you thought with your heart, which was perfectly reasonable. When
you get excited, it's your heart that beats quickly, not your brain. This
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
is why on Valentine’s Day we send little chocolate hearts, though we
should be sending little chocolate brains.
Once the internal organs were removed, the embalmers began the
most difficult of all the surgical procedures, the removal of the brain.
They pushed a copper hook resembling a straightened metal coat hanger
up through the nasal passage. Breaking a thin bone behind the eyes, the
instrument entered the cranial cavity. The copper hook was rotated
repeatedly until the brain was liquefied. The pharaoh’s body was then
held with the head downward and feet toward the ceiling so the brain
could run out through the nose. With the surgical procedures com-
pleted, the embalmers moved to the next stage of mummification —
dehydration of the body.
To remove the remaining bodily fluids, the embalmers covered
Sneferu’s body with 400 pounds of natron, a naturally occurring mix-
ture of baking soda and salt. After thirty-five days, the body was fully
dehydrated by the white powder that preserved it, and Sneferu was
wrapped in hundreds of yards of pure white linen to protect his body.
As the ancient morticians performed their tasks, priests chanted hymns
to ensure Sneferu’s resurrection and entry into the next world. After
seventy days, the period prescribed by the Egyptian religion, Sneferu’s
mummified body was placed in his pyramid at Dashur.
B y the time Sneferu’s body was being ferried across the Nile to the
west, the Egyptian calendar had already been reset to Day 1, Year
1 of his son Khufu’s reign. And while the embalmers were mummify-
ing Sneferu’s body, a spot for his son’s pyramid was being selected. We
know the man who was in charge of the selection — Hemienu, Khufu’s
We know quite a lot about Hemienu because the walls of his huge
tomb on the Giza Plateau are inscribed with his biography. Hemienu
was Sneferu’s son — “The king’s son of his own body” and thus Khufu’s
brother, or at least his half-brother, as Sneferu had several wives. It is not
surprising that Hemienu became an architect. As a young prince grow-
ing up in the royal household, he probably visited his father’s pyramids
as they were being constructed at Meidum and Dashur. He also would
have seen the tremendous power wielded by his father’s architect.
We call Hemienu an architect but this is not quite accurate. “Archi-
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
tect” is a Roman word that means arch builder. Arches were so cen-
tral to Roman building that they defined the profession. In the ancient
world, there was no clear distinction between architects, the people
who designed buildings, and engineers, the people concerned with the
technical aspects of those buildings. Hemienu’s actual title was Over-
seer of the King’s Works. That meant he was responsible for design
but also oversaw the construction of all pyramids, temples, and pal-
aces throughout Egypt. He, of course, had a cadre of other overseers
of works under him and under them were master stonemasons, road
builders, and transport experts. Not only do we know Hemienu’s titles
and responsibilities, but we know
what he looked like. A larger-
than-life-size statue in Germa-
ny’s Hildesheim Museum shows
Hemienu in middle age, bald
and with rolls of fat around his
waist, a sign of prosperity. It is
not an accident of history that
Hemienu’s name has been pre-
served for us; architects were im-
portant people in ancient Egypt.
In 332 b.c., at the end of
her 3,000-year history, Egypt
was conquered by Alexan-
der the Great, and for the next
three centuries was ruled by
Greek pharaohs. The last Greek
to rule Egypt was the famous
Cleopatra VII. During this
Greek period of domination,
Manetho, an Egyptian priest
who spoke Greek as well as his
native tongue, decided to write
a history of Egypt, in Greek, so that the rulers would know something
about Egypt’s marvelous past. He called his history Agyptiaca — Egypt —
and it is centered round the deeds of the pharaohs. 20 Manetho was the
first to organize the Egyptian kings into dynasties, a division still used
by Egyptologists today. By the time Manetho was writing his history,
Hemienu, architect of the Great Pyramid, was shown
middle-aged, with rolls of fat — a sign of prosperity.
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
Hemienu had been dead for more than 2,000 years, but his achieve-
ments and those of other architects were not forgotten. In the rare in-
stances when Manetho mentions a nonroyal name, it is almost always
As architect of the Great Pyramid, Hemienu ’s first task would have
been to select the building site. Religion required that it be on the west
bank of the Nile. Osiris, God of the Dead, was Lord of the West and
when anyone died he was called a westerner. Hemienu knew that his
brother’s pyramid must be in the west, where all the other pyramids
were. Religion was one consideration when selecting the site; politics
was another. Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt, was in the north,
so it is logical that the Pyramid would be in the north, near the seat of
power. Memphis was situated just south of Egypt’s delta, a lush marsh-
land teeming with fish and fowl that fanned out all the way to the
Mediterranean. A major source of Egypt’s protein, the delta was also a
favorite hunting spot for the elite.
For many foreigners, Memphis was Egypt — there was no need to
venture south. They would enter Egypt through the delta and unload
trade goods — timber, oil, wine, copper ingots — at the docks in Mem-
phis. The harbor was constantly bustling with shiploads of cedar logs,
exotic dyes, and Mediterranean wares of all kinds. But Memphis wasn’t
just an economic hub; it was the seat of government and a thriving re-
ligious center. The pharaoh had a palace at Memphis. Administrative
buildings of mud brick with hundreds of small rooms for scribes and
officials stretched out along the Nile. Here men recorded the amount
of grain produced throughout Egypt, taxes, and the pharaoh’s generous
donations to the temples. This was the place where every bright Egyp-
tian wanted to work. If you were a student in a village school in the
south, “making it” meant getting a job as a local scribe, being noticed
by a visiting official, and moving north to Memphis.
Along with the palaces and official buildings were temples to the
various gods. This was the capital of Egypt, so all interests had to be
represented, but Memphis also had its own triad of patron gods: Ptah
the creator god, Sekhmet his wife, and Nefertum their son. Each god
had its own large temple alongside smaller temples for Egypt’s other
gods. It was a glorious gleaming-white city. 21 Memphis’s earliest name,
The White Wall, referred to the limestone wall that surrounded the
58 The Secret of the Great Pyramid
The largest city by far in all of Egypt, Memphis had another distinc-
tion. It was situated on the west bank of the Nile. Almost every large
city was on the east, with the west bank being reserved for cemeteries.
Perhaps Memphis was so old that it was founded before this custom was
established. We can’t be sure, but being on the west bank put this great
city in close proximity to Saqqara — the largest cemetery in Egypt.
From the earliest times, Saqqara was Egypt’s elite burial ground.
Pharaohs of Dynasty 1 have tombs here and for thousands of years
kings and royalty continued to be buried there. Saqqara is probably
the densest archaeological site in the world. Dig anywhere beneath its
hundreds of acres and you will find an important tomb. But this is not
where Khufu was going to be buried. Religion and politics dictated
the general area of the Pyramid; construction concerns determined the
Two million limestone blocks averaging two and a half tons each
were used to build the Great Pyramid. Every mile between the quarry
and the Pyramid would mean extra hours transporting each block,
adding years to the construction time, so great care had to be taken
when selecting the site. As soon as a pharaoh died, the next king began
planning his own tomb. So sometime during 2589 b.c., soon after their
father died, the architect Hemienu sailed up and down the Nile in the
area of Memphis looking for a suitable spot for his brother’s Pyramid
on the west bank of the river where limestone was readily available.
The ship that carried Hemienu would have been a large stately affair,
similar in size and construction technique to the funerary barge found
buried on the Giza Plateau. Hemienu’s had a mast and sails for going
south with the wind. For the northward portion, going with the cur-
rent, rowers manned the oars and guided the ship.
Hemienu traveled with his team of skilled builders. An Overseer of
the Quarries made sure there was plenty of suitable stone in the area. An
Overseer of Transport determined if a harbor could be built on the site
and if canals to the Nile could be easily dug. It must have been incredibly
exciting as they all stood on the deck of Hemienu’s boat discussing the
project, weighing the merits of one site over another. They were about to
begin the largest construction project in the history of the world, and it
was all for the glory of their pharaoh. Building Khufu’s Pyramid would
consume all their energy and attention for decades.
A stroke of engineering genius led Hemienu and his team to select the
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
Giza Plateau. He would not build the Pyramid near the limestone quarry;
he would build it in the quarry. In the time of Hemienu, the Giza Plateau
was a vast, deserted, gleaming-white outcropping of limestone cover-
ing more than 100 acres. On the north side it dropped off precipitously
to the sand below, but on the south side was a gentle slope leading to a
second, even larger, outcropping of limestone more than three-quarters
of a mile long and one-quarter-mile wide that could be used as a second
quarry. By placing Khufu’s Pyramid on the Giza Plateau, Hemienu could
quarry almost all the stone he needed right on-site.
As Hemienu and his team stood on the plateau, they could see the
Step Pyramid ten miles to the south at Saqqara. Then, in the clear
desert air ten miles past the Step Pyramid, they could make out the
shapes of the Bent and Red Pyramids. Sneferu had just been laid to rest
in the Red Pyramid, but the Bent was a reminder to all of them that
things can go wrong in pyramid building.
Hemienu had seen the problems that Sneferu, his father, faced when
constructing his pyramid. Khufu was about forty years old when he
became king; he didn’t have infinite time for his pyramid to be com-
pleted and this figured in the design of the Great Pyramid.
Hemienu decided that there would be three burial chambers, each
at different heights, in the Great Pyramid. The first, an underground
burial chamber, could be completed in the first five years of construc-
tion, and would be used if the pharaoh died in his forties. The second
burial chamber, inside the Pyramid, would be completed when Khufu
was in his fifties and would be used if he died then. The third burial
chamber, high up in the Pyramid, would be finished when Khufu was
in his early sixties and would be the pharaoh’s final resting place if he
lived that long.
The location of these three chambers had been planned from the
very beginning of the project. Their internal dimensions determined
the volume of the Pyramid, how high it would be, the width at the
base, and so on. When tourists look at the Great Pyramid, they often
think that building a pyramid is merely stacking blocks on top of other
blocks. Building the Great Pyramid was much more complex than that.
There were two very different aspects to the Pyramid. There was the
internal part with its rooms and passages, and there was the surround-
ing external, solid part. Each aspect required different materials and
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
As the team of builders looked out across the plateau, each man
must have talked about his specialty — about the quality and quantity
of stone, about where to cut a channel to the Nile, where to build the
harbor, where to house the workmen, and so on. The most specific
question they had to answer was exactly where on the plateau to build
the Pyramid. It was clear that it should be on the east side of the pla-
teau, the side nearest the river. That would allow materials and sup-
plies ferried in on transport barges and off-loaded close to the building
site, again reducing transportation time. This concern narrowed the
Pyramid’s final position to the eastern part of the Giza Plateau, but
exactly where on the eastern part? A high elevation on the plateau was
desirable so the Pyramid could be seen for miles, but Hemienu did not
select the highest point on the plateau. Why not there, in the place of
pride? Because Hemienu had a master plan for the plateau.
The highest point of the plateau is on the south side, where the
gentle slope leads down to the southern outcropping of limestone that
was going to be quarried. The slope forms a natural ramp, making it
easy to transport blocks of stone up onto the plateau. But if Khufu’s
Pyramid were built at the highest point, right at the top of the slope,
that would block the slope for future Giza projects using the southern
The Giza Plateau was large enough for six or seven pyramids, and
Hemienu intended to create a 4th Dynasty burial ground for the royal
family. By placing the Pyramid on the northeast corner, he left the
slope on the south that led from the quarry open so two other large
pyramids could be built in the future.
Hemienu thought on a large scale, both in space and time. The years
ahead would provide many more examples of this genius’s insights and
skills, from organizing thousands of workers to selecting the perfect
materials for each part of the Pyramid. Hemienu was a micromanager
overseeing the largest building project in the history of the world.
Even before a single block had been quarried, Hemienu calculated
that it would take twenty years to build the Pyramid. He knew it had
taken ten years and seven months to build his father’s Red Pyramid at
Dashur, and that it rose at the rate of thirty feet per year. He knew this
because he had watched it being built. We know it because of the work
of the great German Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann.
Stadelmann has spent his career studying Egypt’s pyramids, and in
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
the 1980s conducted a detailed survey of Sneferu’s pyramids at Dashur.
During this survey he noticed ancient writing on several blocks of the
Red Pyramid on different levels. The inscriptions were from the time
of the Pyramid’s construction and gave the dates when the blocks were
put in place. During the era of Sneferu, dates were often recorded in
terms of the annual or biannual nationwide cattle census. Thus one
block, on the thirteenth course of the Pyramid reads: “Day 14 in the
second month of summer, in the year of the 15th cattle census.” An-
other block, just three courses above reads: “30th day of the 3rd month
of the season of inundation, in the year of the 16th cattle census.”
Using the dates Stadelmann found inscribed on the blocks, another
Egyptologist, Rolf Krauss, a specialist in chronology, concluded that
it took nearly eleven years to build the Red Pyramid. 22 This estimate
could be off by a year or so. Dates on blocks were usually inscribed at
the quarry, so it is possible that blocks were stored there for some time
before being transported to the Pyramid. Still, my bet is that Krauss’s
estimate is not far off. From the various dates inscribed on the blocks,
he was also able to calculate that the Pyramid rose at a relatively con-
stant rate of about thirty feet per year. At first this seems surprising
because there are so many more blocks in the lower courses than the
upper, so you might think the lower courses would take much longer to
build than those higher up. However, it takes much more effort to raise
a block all the way up to the top than it does to set a block in place on
the bottom. It took eleven years to build the Red Pyramid, but Khufu’s
was going to be larger and its interior would be more complicated.
Hemienu’s calculations would have told him that twenty years was a
reasonable estimate if nothing went wrong. One thing he was certain
of, it would take thousands of workers to complete the project in only
two decades, perhaps as many as 25,000 on the Giza Plateau. 23
he population of Egypt was only a bit more than a million, so this
workforce was a significant portion of the country’s able-bodied
men. At the beginning of the project the scene must have been a bit
like America during World War II. Recruiters went throughout the
country looking for healthy patriotic men. Families up and down the
Nile were contributing husbands and sons for a national cause. Don’t
think of slaves; Hollywood got that one wrong. These were free men
The Giza Plateau was large enough
accommodate three large pyramid
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
willing to work for the glory of their pharaoh. Archaeologists have
found graffiti written by quarrymen on blocks that are now inside the
Great Pyramid. These hasty jottings in red ink give us a window into
what life was like for these men. Lower-level workers were organized
into work gangs of ten and the names they chose for themselves show
both pride and joie de vivre. One group was “Khufu Is Pure”; another,
“May the white crown of Khufu strengthen the sailing.” Many of the
men who came to Giza had never been out of their villages and had
traveled great distances to a place they had only heard about. Again
much like World War II, for many it would be the defining experience
of their lives.
For modern Egyptologists, the workers were a mystery — it seemed
as if all traces of them had vanished. How is this possible? They must
have had houses, stores, everything a boom town needs. Then in the
1970s, a young Egyptologist from the University of Chicago began
searching for the lost workers. Mark Lehner came to Egyptology via a
strange and mystical route. As a teenager, he became infatuated with an
organization called Association for Research and Enlightenment. The
members, who were followers of the psychic Edgar Cayce, believed that
records of a lost ancient civilization were hidden beneath the Sphinx.
The association still exists, but had its heyday in the 1960s when the
New Age was sweeping America. In search of arcane knowledge,
Lehner visited Egypt, began to read Egyptology books and journals,
and was soon disillusioned with Edgar Cayce’s revelations but not with
Egypt. He returned to school, learned to read and write hieroglyphs,
how to excavate an archaeological site, and today is one of Egyptology’s
foremost authorities on the Giza Plateau.
In the 1970s, surprisingly little was known about the Giza Plateau.
There had been plenty of investigations of the pyramids. The 4th Dy-
nasty tombs of the nobility that surround the pyramids had been thor-
oughly excavated by German and American Egyptologists in the early
twentieth century, but no one seemed to care about the lowly workers
or where they had lived. Lehner began his search for them by survey-
ing the entire Giza area.
The first stage of an archaeological survey is amazingly simple. Walk
around the area and look on the ground. Even after thousands of years,
there are often clues right on the surface of the site. Usually this is
just pottery — the handle of a water jar, the bottom of a cup — but such
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
fragments can provide information about who lived there. Just as our
dinnerware styles have changed over the years, ancient Egyptian pots
and jars had changed. A drinking cup used by workmen in the time
of Khufu is different from one used a thousand years later by an artist
painting Tutankhamen’s tomb. Not only can the fragment tell you the
period when a cup was used, it can tell you the status of the user. The
cups of the elite were much finer than those used by workmen. Every
excavation team has a pottery expert who can read these fragments of
When doing the surface survey there are other clues as well that can
help narrow the area you are searching. Lehner knew that the workers’
village wouldn’t have been on the Giza Plateau itself. That was prime
real estate, reserved for royal pyramids and tombs of the nobles. The
workers would have lived just below the plateau, within walking dis-
tance, but in which direction? Ancient cities usually had enclosure walls
for protection. Workers’ villages also had walls around them, but for a
different purpose. Usually there was only one entrance, and this enabled
the village overseer to keep careful tabs on who came and went. When
Lehner found the remains of a long stone wall just half a mile southeast
of the Great Pyramid, he began excavating. Soon what became known
as the Lost City began emerging from the desert sands . 24
Everything a thriving village of hungry workers would need was
there. The remaining walls of a bakery were only a foot high, but the
site was littered with cone-shaped clay bread molds. These molds were
once filled with dough, stacked high in an oven, and baked. Any Egyp-
tologist can tell you that if you find the bakery, the brewery can’t be far
away. Egyptians drank beer and you need yeast to brew beer. It was a
simple matter for the brewer to get his yeast from the baker. The bakery
and brewery weren’t Lehner ’s only finds. Across town he found a gra-
nary where huge amounts of grain were stored. It was a spacious court-
yard filled with seven round mud brick silos, each about eight feet across.
There are probably more nearby, beneath a modern soccer field where
today boys play in the shadow of the Pyramid their ancestors built.
When Lehner found the remains of the butcher shop, another expert
on the team sprang into action. Paleozoologists can look at an ancient
animal bone and tell you whether it is the knee cap of a goat or the ear
bone of a pig. If you are excavating an ancient city and want to know
what the inhabitants ate, these people are crucial. The analysis of the
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
bones found near the butcher shop revealed that the workers ate quite
well. They were supplied with beef, sheep, goat, and occasionally pork.
This was not the usual poor man’s diet. The typical laborer rarely ate
meat; his basics were bread, beer, and onions. If the pharaoh’s work-
ers were going to be doing strenuous labor, they would need plenty of
protein and calories; they had to be fed well. Because it was difficult to
keep meat fresh in ancient Egypt, much of these supplies were probably
delivered on the hoof and slaughtered daily as needed.
There were also administrative buildings where scribes and officials
kept track of all the goods supplied to the workforce. Lehner even un-
covered a large house he calls the Manor, where a high official who
oversaw the workers’ village lived. Of all the buildings uncovered in
the thirty years he has been excavating the Lost City, the strangest, dis-
covered in 1999, is known as the Gallery. It’s a 100-foot-long building
whose main feature is a mud brick partition running right down the
middle, dividing the gallery into two sections each about six feet wide.
It looks like Siamese bowling alleys. As excavations continued, more
and more galleries were discovered throughout the Lost City. For now,
the best bet is that they functioned as barracks, sleeping quarters for
workmen, who would stretch out side by side, looking very much like
two rows of sardines in a can.
Lehner ’s three decades of excavating the Lost City has made the
workmen come alive. We know what they ate, how they slept. We
know there were other areas of the city where weaving took place, and
where craftsmen hammered out copper chisels needed to quarry and
shape the Pyramid’s blocks. It was a hive of activity and everyone was
working for the glory of the pharaoh.
When this army of workers started pouring into Giza, their first
jobs were to build their houses, bakeries, breweries — everything a city
of 25,000 needed to sustain itself. All the buildings were simple af-
fairs made of mud bricks. No expensive stone could be wasted on mere
workmen. There was little furniture in these modest houses, just a chest
woven from palm fronds to hold clothing and some reed mats to sit and
sleep on. Some of the workers were put to work digging the four-mile
canal to the Nile so supplies could be floated right up to the work site.
Although five-sixths of the Pyramid’s blocks would come from the
Giza quarries, more than a quarter of a million tons of special stone still
came from off-site quarries and had to be transported to Giza. Haul-
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
ing sixty-ton granite blocks on sleds from the Nile over four miles of
uneven sandy terrain is almost unthinkable. It was much easier to float
them down the Nile and through the canal to the site. When the Egyp-
tians did transport blocks of stone over land, they didn’t use wheels.
One reason is that wheels sink into sand, but another is that they didn’t
have a metal strong enough for axles to support blocks weighing sev-
eral tons. So when the blocks came off the transport barges at the site’s
harbor, they were already on their sleds and were hauled a short dis-
tance to the Pyramid. Some of the sixty-ton stones were twenty-four
feet long and four feet thick, and were placed on huge thirty-foot-long
sleds made of thick cedar beams. Then with an overseer standing on
top of the granite block calling out instructions, hundreds of workers
pulled at the ropes to haul the block.
There were two off-site quarries; the closer one was eight miles up-
stream from Giza across the river on the eastern bank. The limestone
at Giza was yellow, rough, uneven, and pocked with fossils, suitable
only for the Pyramid’s inner fill that no one would ever see, not fine
enough to cover what would become the Pyramid’s smooth, white ex-
terior. For this purpose, nearly a quarter of a million tons of pure white
covering would be cut from a 500-foot glistening mountain of lime-
stone. The stoneworkers used four-inch-wide copper chisels and wood
mallets. Copper is soft and dulls quickly, but fortunately limestone is
also soft and splits along straight lines, so copper was adequate for the
task. However, there must have been a small army of unskilled work-
ers camped at the site whose job was just to sharpen the chisels as they
Limestone has an unusual property that makes it ideal for quarry-
ing. It is soft when first quarried but hardens when air hits it. Thus it
was easiest to finish the fine blocks on the site when they were still soft.
The average facing block weighed more than two tons and was three
feet high, so several men could polish it at one time. Today the site
where these blocks were quarried is called Tura. During World War
II, the British stored ammunition in the tunnels excavated by Khufu’s
quarry workers. After the war, the quarry was reopened for modern
building stone and the ancient tunnels and traces of the workers were
The second off-site quarry Hemienu needed was 500 miles south of
Giza, on Egypt’s southern border at Aswan. Here a very different kind
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
of stone was found — granite. One hundred times harder than lime-
stone and extremely difficult to extract and shape, it created a great
challenge. Limestone couldn’t be used to span large spaces; it isn’t
strong enough, but granite is. Up until the time of Hemienu, gran-
ite was used sparingly because it is so difficult to work. But Hemienu
decided that his king’s burial chamber inside the Pyramid would be
constructed entirely of Aswan granite. It was needed purely for struc-
tural reasons. Khufu’s burial chamber was going to be high inside the
Pyramid, with hundreds of thousands of tons of stone above its roof.
Somehow, the ceiling had to support this enormous weight above it. In
the earlier pyramids at Dashur, a corbelled ceiling solved this problem,
but Hemienu had another plan: he would do it without corbelling. We
don’t know who made the decision to abandon corbelling. Perhaps the
king himself decided he wanted something even greater than his fa-
ther’s burial chamber. Maybe it was Hemienu’s idea. We can’t be sure,
but we do know that the goal was a burial chamber with a flat ceiling.
This would create a more open space than a corbelled ceiling that got
smaller and smaller toward the top. Such a room would require granite,
lots of it. Hemienu’s calculations would have indicated that more than
3.500 tons had to be quarried, shaped, and shipped down the Nile to
Giza. Since he knew both exactly how high up in the Pyramid the
burial chamber would be and also the rate at which the Pyramid would
rise each year, he knew the granite for the burial chamber would not be
needed until the twelfth year of construction. He also knew it would
take years to free that much granite from the Aswan quarry, and that
work had to begin immediately.
Granite was too hard to be worked using copper, the only metal
available for chisels. Every block would have to be pounded out and
shaped with hard dolerite rocks, some weighing sixteen pounds. Today,
4.500 year later, the ancient quarry is still littered with hundreds of
round, black rocks. Hemienu’s workmen repeatedly lifted and dropped
these pounders on the granite, chipping away only millimeters at a
time. Using this laborious process, they ultimately fashioned forty-
three granite beams twenty-four feet long, weighing from thirty to
sixty tons each. Add to this hundreds of smaller blocks, many four-foot
cubes, but still weighing many tons each, and it seems an almost im-
possible task with only stone tools. But Hemienu had done his calcula-
tions. If the men were dispatched to Aswan now, at the beginning of
The ancient dolerite pounders used to quarry granite.
the project, the granite blocks should be ready for the pharaoh’s burial
chamber when they were needed, just as the Pyramid approached 150
feet in height.
Probably five hundred men were dispatched to open the new quar-
ries at Aswan. In twelve years they would provide more granite than
Egypt had used in its entire history. An even larger number of men
were sent to Tura to begin quarrying the fine limestone casing blocks
that would make pharaoh’s Pyramid glisten in the sunlight. From the
earliest stages of the Great Pyramid’s construction, Hemienu had four
quarries simultaneously in operation: 1) The Giza Plateau itself was
quarried around the Pyramid’s thirteen-and-a-half-acre base to provide
limestone for the inner core. 2) Just south of the plateau, the southern
quarry supplied more low-grade limestone for the inner core. 3) The
Tura quarry, just a few miles to the south and across the river, pro-
vided the fine, smooth limestone for the Pyramid’s outer casing. 4) The
Aswan quarry, 500 miles south, yielded all the granite for the interior
chambers of the Pyramid.
In a period of twenty years, these four quarries would supply more
than two million blocks of stone to construct the Great Pyramid, on
average, more than 100,000 blocks a year. The men probably worked a
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
ten-hour day, which would mean that a completed block was quarried,
transported, and pushed in place every three minutes — 365 days a year
for twenty years! One wonders which is more remarkable, the Great
Pyramid’s construction or the social organization needed to bring
about that construction.
Boats had to be built to transport hundreds of thousands of massive
stone blocks. Three thousand five hundred tons of granite was shipped
from the Aswan quarry during the first twelve years of construction.
That’s about 300 tons a year that had to make the thirty-day journey
north to Giza. Far more than that had to be shipped from the Tura
quarry, but that was only an eight-mile haul. The transport barges had
to be sturdy enough to support the heavy blocks and this required stout
timbers, but Sneferu, Khufu’s father, had already solved that problem.
When Sneferu was building his pyramids, he sent an expedition to
Lebanon to trade papyrus, gold, and finely crafted objects for the mas-
sive cedars of Lebanon. Khufu must have done the same for his pyra-
Although the Pyramid is huge, and the quantities of stone, men, and
supplies seem overwhelming, sometimes things are simpler than they
appear. When I started thinking about how many boats were needed to
transport the fine white limestone for the facing of the Pyramid from
the Tura quarry, I had visions of the Nile clogged with barges. After
all, hundreds of thousands of tons of stone were needed to face the four
sides of the Pyramid. So let me ask you a question. How many boats
had to be built to transport all that stone? One of my students answered
the question very cleverly.
Once a year I teach an Egyptology elective course at the Webb Insti-
tute for Naval Architecture. An amazing place, one of the finest schools
in the world for naval architecture, named after William Webb, who
during the Civil War designed the Monitor, the North’s famous ironclad
battleship. Webb went on to become America’s top ship designer; when
he died he left his fortune to found the Webb Institute. He wanted the
best for the best, so every student is on a full scholarship, and since only
twenty are accepted each year, it is highly competitive. You may have
seen the school. It is an old Edwardian-style mansion on Long Island
Sound — and it was Wayne Manor in one of the Batman movies.
Anyway, since the kids are so bright, I decided to ask my class the
question I’ve asked you: How many boats were needed to transport
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
the facing stones from the quarry to the Pyramid site? I wanted the
class to think about the problem and give me their answers at our next
meeting, but no more than thirty seconds had passed when one student
raised his hand and said, “Two.” Incredibly, he’s probably right. He
knew that the facing blocks were about three feet deep and had calcu-
lated how many tons of stone were needed for a pyramid 480 feet high
with a 756-foot base. Then he calculated the number of work days in
twenty years. Let’s say it’s 300 days per year, so during twenty years
there would be 6,000 work days. A boat could easily make the eight-
mile voyage from Tura to Giza in a day, so if a boat took forty tons and
you had two boats you could easily transport 250,000 tons of stone to
the site in twenty years. That’s predicated on the assumption that each
boat hauled forty tons. We must also remember that the Great Pyramid
was not the only monument under construction on the Giza Plateau;
there was an entire funerary complex. There were three small pyramids
for Khufu’s queens, a mortuary temple, and a causeway, all requiring
limestone. This would have raised the total amount of limestone used
and raised the number of transport boats needed.
We know that the transportation of all this stone was well within
the capabilities of Egyptian boats because of a scene carved on Queen
Hatshepsut’s temple about 1,000 years after the Great Pyramid was
constructed. We are shown the moving of Hatshepsut’s two great obe-
lisks from Aswan to the Karnak temple. Each obelisk weighed about
250 tons, and both were placed on a single barge. 25 Thus a forty-ton
barge for moving the facing stones would have posed no difficulties for
Khufu’s workers. Even if they decided to have smaller boats capable of
moving only five tons or two blocks, we are still talking about only a
couple of dozen boats. Granted, you’d need to transport more stones in
the earlier years than in the later years because the pyramid is larger on
the bottom that the top, and you would also need extra boats to replace
damaged ones, but still it is a manageable task. 26
Harbors, ships, houses, and canals were only some of the resources
needed to build Khufu’s Pyramid. Miles and miles of thick rope had to
be woven to haul the millions of blocks on sleds to their final positions
in the Pyramid. In the limestone quarries, thousands of copper chisels
were needed to free the blocks from their matrix and cut them into the
desired size and shape. Over the course of the next twenty years, more
than 250 tons of copper would be needed for the pharaoh’s chisels. 27
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
Expeditions of miners were dispatched to the Sinai Desert, Egypt’s
only source of copper. The journey to the Sinai was long and difficult.
This was foreign territory inhabited by “barbarians.” The miners and
their equipment, protected by the pharaoh’s soldiers, trekked through
Egypt’s eastern desert to the banks of the Red Sea and then boarded
transport vessels to cross to the Sinai. Then the party of fifty or so
miners and their guards mounted donkeys for the nine-day journey to
the mines . 28 The ore they chipped out of the mountain was crushed
and then heated in kilns so the copper would run out. In pure form,
the copper ingots were taken back by donkey to the transport ships and
across the Red Sea. Once on the other side, it was back to the donkeys
to pack it across the desert to the Nile. Finally the copper was shipped
to the Pyramid site to be cast into the tools urgently needed by the
Mortar was another important ingredient in the Pyramid. The Pyra-
mid is much like a dam — the exterior surfaces are smooth and polished,
but the interior is mostly rubble. When the Pyramid was built, first the
smooth white Tura facing blocks were slid in place, then behind them
were a few rows of backing blocks. Then the inside of the Pyramid
was filled with irregular rough blocks. As the crude interior blocks
were set in place on the Pyramid, the spaces between them were filled
with mortar. From a quarry near the Giza Plateau, half a million tons
of gypsum were mined and transformed into mortar for Khufu’s Pyra-
mid . 29 This involved digging up the gypsum (calcium sulfate), burning
it so that it loses about three-fourths its water, and then pulverizing it.
When water is now added, it recombines to make something very simi-
lar to our modern plaster, setting and becoming very hard . 30 The list of
jobs tackled by Hemienu’s pyramid builders seems endless, and much of
the success of the project was intimately linked to a huge supply chain,
the first ever of such magnitude.
A s the workers were pouring into the Giza Plateau, building their
houses, digging canals, heading off to the Sinai for copper, and
building barges to transport stone, Flemienu would have been under-
taking the task of orienting the Pyramid. After it was decided that the
Pyramid would occupy the northeast corner of the plateau and have a
square base of thirteen and a half acres, it was determined for religious
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
reasons that the Pyramid should be oriented to the four points of the
compass. The stars seem to rotate around a fixed point in the sky. Today
that point is the North Star. In the time of the Great Pyramid, it was
different, but as the other stars rotated, their northern point was also
constant. The deceased pharaoh was associated with this unchanging,
eternal northern point; thus the entrance to the Pyramid would face
due north toward that point. Orienting the sides of the Pyramid to the
compass points would not have been a difficult task. The ancient Egyp-
tians were skilled surveyors. Each year when the Nile overflowed its
banks, boundary markers were washed away; when the water receded
and the land emerged, everything had to be resurveyed. With centuries
of surveying practice, the ancient Egyptians became quite good at it.
There were several possible methods by which they could have de-
termined true north. One method was solar. At noon, a perfectly ver-
tical staff called a gnomon will not cast a shadow because the sun is
directly overhead. Mark the shadow it casts five minutes before noon,
then mark it five minutes after noon, bisect the angle and the line of
bisection will point due north. A series of gnomons would provide
greater accuracy when all their lines were connected.
A second method used the stars. A wall about five feet high is built
on the site, creating an artificial, perfectly level horizon. In the evening,
facing in the general direction of north, an astronomer-priest would
observe the passage of the stars across the sky. He would mark the wall
where a given star first rose above it. Later that night, he would mark
where the star disappeared behind the wall. The midpoint between
these two points is north. This observation could be repeated many
nights with different stars to obtain an exact reading for north. 31
Another astronomical method of determining north has recently
been suggested. This involves the careful observation of two stars,
Kochab and Mizar. When one was directly above the other, the line
connecting them indicated true north. 32 Whichever technique the an-
cient Egyptians used, it worked. The sides of the Pyramid are remark-
ably aligned to the four points of the compass.
Hemienu understood that with something as large as the Great Pyr-
amid, precision is crucial. Being off by an inch at the base could cause
a deviation of yards at the top. Thus the base had to be as close to
perfectly level as possible — and it is. At the base of the Pyramid, each
side stretches 230 meters but never deviates from level by as much as an
To orient the Great Pyramid’s four sides to the four points of the compass, astronomer-priests
may have observed the rising and setting of stars behind an artificial horizon.
Hemienu Plans the Great Pyramid
inch. We are not certain exactly how Hemienu achieved such accuracy,
but it has often been suggested that the principle was the same as using
a modern carpenter’s spirit level, the kind with a bubble of liquid in it.
A thin trench was cut around the perimeter of the Pyramid and filled
with water. The level of the water was then traced on the wall of the
trench and that was the starting base line. The trench could be filled
in up to the base line and the rest of the perimeter leveled in accor-
dance with the line. Once the perimeter was level, the first blocks were
almost ready to be put in place.
The base of the Pyramid covers approximately thirteen and a half
acres, about ten football fields, but Hemienu didn’t level the entire
area. Rather, he left an outcropping of limestone twenty-one feet high
still attached to the bedrock in the middle of the base. Thus the first
twenty-one feet of the middle of the Pyramid did not have to be built
out of blocks; blocks were only needed for the perimeter. Tourists who
visit the Pyramid don’t realize this because the stonemasons sculpted
the bedrock to look like blocks. The average Pyramid block is a three-
foot cube. Some of the exposed “blocks” appear to be thirty feet long.
They are not really blocks, just carved bedrock, so other blocks could
be stacked on top of it. The outcropping comprises approximately 10
percent of the Pyramid’s mass — a substantial saving of labor and ma-
terials. With the perimeter leveled and the first twenty-one feet of the
center of the Pyramid already rising from the quarry, the actual build-
ing was ready to begin. This is where planning was crucial.
There is a tendency to think of the Great Pyramid as simply a huge
building block construction. Start hauling blocks up a ramp, push them
in place, and repeat the process until you come to a space where you
want a chamber. Build around that space and then continue placing
the giant blocks until you reach the top of the Pyramid. Such building
techniques will not get you the Great Pyramid of Giza. The construc-
tion and engineering problems to be solved are far too complex for
such a simpleminded approach. For example, the techniques for install-
ing blocks at the bottom of the Pyramid cannot be used at the top. At
the base you merely push the stones into place, but when you near the
top of the Pyramid it gets tricky — you have to raise the stones 450 feet.
Also, each chamber inside the Pyramid is designed differently and re-
quires different construction methods.
Because there were so many different aspects to the Great Pyra-
What appear to be very long blocks of stone are
really part of the Giza Plateau bedrock that has
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
mid, it was an extremely difficult project to plan, but by the time
Khufu became pharaoh, Egypt had been building pyramids for a hun-
dred years. On the Egyptian scale of things, a century doesn’t seem
like much, but that is a long time to gain experience and to perfect
construction techniques. When Hemienu began planning his pharaoh’s
Pyramid, there was quite a history of pyramid construction to draw
upon, though he intended to go far beyond anything that had ever
been done or imagined.
Giza, Egypt, 2584 b.c. (Year 5 in the reign of Khufu)
D uring the first few years of building, all problems in the work
plan were ironed out. Where the men would live, how they
would be fed, and who would make up the various work
gangs or teams were all decided. Tremendous social organization was
needed, but such issues had been figured out during the construction of
the earlier pyramids.
W hile the bedrock was still exposed, masons began carving out
the descending passageway that led to the underground burial
chamber. This chamber was to be used only if Khufu died during the
first ten years of construction. Because the descending passage was
never intended for heavy traffic — -just the pharaoh’s sarcophagus — it is
rather small, just large enough for one person to walk around or move
in hunched over. It must have been carved by a single master stone-
mason, as there is no room for two people to work in it. Of all the
chambers and passages in the Great Pyramid, it is the most precise. An
engineering marvel, the exactly cut rectangular tunnel descends 230
feet, pointing due north and never deviating by more than a quarter
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
of an inch. At the early stages of the Pyramid’s construction when the
subterranean chamber was being carved out, this passage served as the
highway that daily brought the workers to their jobs underground.
Once the descending passage was completed, a team of workers began
carving out the burial chamber. At first only one man, working at the end
of the passage, could carve the beginnings of the subterranean chamber
into the bedrock. Then, when there was room for a coworker, a second
mason joined him and they chipped away at the limestone until the small
chamber could accommodate a third worker, and so it went until a team
of more than a dozen were working there. Just as in all excavated tombs,
they began at the ceiling and excavated downward, assisted by gravity. If
you carved a tomb from the bottom up, you would always have to swing
your mallet upward and fight gravity.
The men who excavated the underground chamber didn’t need
great skills. They were really just roughing out the twenty-six-by-
forty-three-foot room. As they worked and the chips accumulated,
even less skilled workers carried the chips in baskets up the descending
passage to the surface. Later, more skilled craftsmen could put the fin-
ishing touches on the king’s burial chamber. But the skilled craftsmen
were never needed. As the Pyramid progressed the pharaoh was clearly
in good health. Hemienu could now move on toward a burial chamber
high up in the Pyramid.
A fter the first few years of work, the Pyramid had risen only about
twenty of its 482 feet, but the outcropping of bedrock left in place
had now disappeared inside the Pyramid. As the Pyramid grew, tier by
tier, it was not perfectly level. Only the outer-facing blocks, already
carefully dressed, and those immediately behind them were set in place
with precision. Inside this thin perimeter, rough blocks of various sizes
were crudely pushed into place and the spaces between them filled with
rubble and mortar. Every thirty feet or so, the Pyramid was leveled
carefully and then the construction continued. As Hemienu prepared
to build the second burial chamber, raising blocks efficiently became
essential. In the very first stages, it was a simple matter to just push
blocks into place, but when the Pyramid rose past 150 feet or so, raising
the two-and-a-half-ton blocks became a real chore.
Photographic Insert I
The stone columns at the entrance to the Step Pyramid were carved to resemble bundles of
papyri tied together.
The Bent Pyramid was Egypt’s first great architectural disaster.
The pyramid of Meidum looks more like a fortress
than a pyramid because in the Middle Ages its
stones were quarried for other buildings.
An 1880s photo of the Great Pyramid.
Computer reconstruction of the Great Pyramid after 5, 14, 15, 19, 20, and 21 years of construction.
The Pyramid is just a few courses high and the white
bedrock core inside the Pyramid is still visible.
The Burial Chamber is now being constructed and
the external ramp used to build the lower courses of
the Pyramid has reached its maximum height.
The Burial Chamber is under construction
and a kind of step pyramid is built at 60 feet.
The external ramp is still in place.
The Burial Chamber and relieving chambers have
been completed, and the external ramp used for
the lower courses has been removed and the
materials have been reused to complete the upper
part of the Pyramid.
The Pyramid nears completion.
The Pyramid is complete with all its gleaming white
facing stones in place.
The Underground Burial Chamber
For the early stages, a simple exterior ramp would do just fine. Up
to about 200 feet a ramp is neither too massive nor too long to be im-
practical and undoubtedly Hemienu built the first 200 feet or so with
a single ramp. The terrain dictated that the ramp be on the south side
of the Pyramid; it was the only side of the Giza Plateau without a steep
drop-off. The south was also where the quarry was, so this reduced
the distance the blocks had to be hauled. At the beginning stages of
the Pyramid’s construction, the ramp had to be quite wide, more than
100 yards, to accommodate teams of workmen simultaneously pull-
ing blocks up. At that point, one block was being pushed into place
every three minutes. From the start, the ramp was built at its maxi-
mum length, stretching a quarter of a mile south toward the quarry.
To make sure that a constant stream of blocks was always moving, the
ramp was probably divided into two parts. One part was used for haul-
ing and for the workmen returning back down. Meanwhile, the other
half was being raised in readiness for the next course of stones. Once
an additional level of stones was in place, the workers started hauling
up the other side and the side they had just abandoned was raised to be
ready for the next level. Thus half the ramp was always being built up
while the other half was in use.
The majority of the blocks that went up the ramp were rough two-
and-a-half-ton filler blocks extracted from the southern quarry. Some
were much larger. When the Pyramid was sixty feet high, twelve huge
twenty-ton limestone blocks were hauled up the ramp. It was time for
construction to begin on the second burial chamber, usually called the
Compared with the unfinished underground burial chamber, the
eighteen-foot-square second chamber is quite small. It appears almost
as if Hemienu knew the king would live long enough to be interred
in the third burial chamber that would be built higher up inside the
Pyramid. In the Queen’s Chamber, a roofing technique was tested that
would later be crucial in the third burial chamber.
The ceiling is the weak point of any chamber inside a pyramid. It
must support the enormous weight of the pyramid above it, and no
beams — not even granite — can bear that kind of load. In the earlier
pyramids at Meidum and Dashur, there were no beams; corbelling was
the solution. But the third burial chamber was going to have a flat ceil-
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
ing, the first ever inside a pyramid. Somehow, the weight had to be
taken off the ceiling beams or they would crack.
Rather than corbelling the walls inward as they rose to the ceiling,
the walls of the second burial chamber go straight up like traditional
walls, but then they are capped by six pairs of huge white limestone
rafters that meet at a 120-degree angle. These rafters distribute the
weight of the Pyramid above them into the solid body of the Pyra-
mid below. The rafters were put in place sometime after the tenth year
of construction, and an ascending passage leading to the second burial
chamber was also built. So now two passageways led from the Pyra-
mid’s entrance to two burial chambers — the unfinished one beneath
the Pyramid and the second burial chamber inside the Pyramid. Like
the first burial chamber, the second is incomplete, again a sign that
Khufu was healthy and expected to live long enough to be buried in
the third chamber, even higher up in the Pyramid.
After ten years of construction, two burial chambers and two passageways had been
completed inside the Great Pyramid.
The Queen’s Chamber was the
first to use rafters to support
the weight of the Pyramid
Modern Tomb Raiders:
The Search for Hidden Chambers
The Great Pyramid, 1986
T he vast majority of tourists who visit the Great Pyramid never
go inside; many don’t even know it’s possible. Group tours to
Egypt are a whirlwind affair — “Not much time, we have to
keep moving.” Usually a morning visit to the Giza Plateau involves
a walk around the Great Pyramid as the guide explains how tall it is,
who built it, and how many stones were used. That is followed by a
drive to a spot where you can take a “panoramic picture” of the Giza
pyramids, and then a drive to see the Sphinx and the Valley Temple of
Kephren. If there are a few minutes to spare, and the traveler is adven-
turous, there are plenty of camel drivers eager to take him for a ride.
The special ticket to go inside the Pyramid costs 100 Egyptian pounds
(about twenty dollars) and only 100 are sold each day, to keep the hu-
midity constant inside the Pyramid. Thus, it is the rare tourist who sees
the inside of the Pyramid and almost everyone who does is confused by
what he sees.
To the first-time visitor, the Pyramid seems to be a maze of corri-
dors and rooms with no clear purpose. The best way to make sense of
the Pyramid is to remember that there are three burial chambers and
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
a passage leading to each. 1) There is a descending passage that goes
into the bedrock to the subterranean burial chamber. 2) The cham-
ber erroneously called the Queen’s Chamber higher up in the Pyramid
is reached via the ascending passageway. 3) The last burial chamber,
the King’s Chamber, highest up in the Pyramid, is reached by a pas-
sage called the Grand Gallery. Three burial chambers, three passages;
sounds easy but once you’re there it’s overwhelming.
For centuries there have been rumors of hidden chambers filled
with treasures Khufu intended to take with him to the next world.
There have been plenty of failed scientific attempts to find them, so
by now you would think that everything is known about the Pyramid.
Not quite. Incredible as it seems, in 1986 two French tourists visit-
ing the Pyramid discovered evidence for a chamber that had remained
hidden for 4,500 years.
The two men, Gilles Dormion, a design technician, andJean-Patrice
Goidin, an architect, were hunched over in the low horizontal pas-
sage that leads to the Queen’s Chamber when they noticed something
When finally completed, the Great Pyramid had three burial chambers and three major
Modern Tomb Raiders
strange. The passage is about four feet high and 100 feet long — not for
the claustrophobic — and is constructed of polished limestone blocks. In
any culture, when you build with blocks or bricks, you normally don’t
stack one block directly on top of the other. That would create unstable
tall columns of blocks. Just look at any brick wall and you’ll see the
familiar pattern of a brick on top resting on the two bricks beneath it.
This is also the way the Great Pyramid was built. Go through the pas-
sages and chambers and you will see one stone resting on two beneath
it. Our Frenchmen were experienced at building and they knew this,
too. As they duckwalked through the low passage, something caught
their eye. A section of one of the walls was constructed the wrong way:
the blocks were stacked
up directly one on top
of the other so that the
joins formed plus signs.
This is the only place in
the Great Pyramid where
blocks had been laid this
way. Why? As visions of
hidden treasure danced
in their heads, they won-
dered, could there be a
hidden room behind the
special wall? 33
The two men re-
turned to France with
dreams of excavating
and finding Khufu’s
treasures. It might seem
rather fanciful for two
tourists to even be thinking about excavating in the Great Pyramid,
but this was the 1980s and regulations about excavating were much
more lax than they are now. Today you must be affiliated with a uni-
versity, have academic credentials, submit a detailed proposal of exactly
what you want to do and how you intend to do it, and have an equally
well-documented team behind you. But in the 1980s, if you were well
connected and didn’t look like you were going to damage anything,
you had a chance. Dormion and Goidin were well-respected profes-
An unusual pattern of stacked blocks led to the 1986
discovery of a previously unknown chamber. The metal
screw heads are stoppers for the drill holes.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
sionals who knew other well-respected professionals, and soon they had
put together a team called Operation Kheops.
They were amateurs, but they planned their project well. They in-
tended to study the Pyramid nondestructively — without moving any
blocks. To do this they needed some high-tech help. They enlisted the
aid of a company that used a technique called microgravimetry. The
principle is simple, the application is not so simple.
Anything with mass has a gravitational attraction. As is well known,
the moon’s gravitational attraction to Earth causes the tides. The gravi-
tational force of the stone blocks in the Great Pyramid can be detected
with a very sensitive device called a microgravimeter. Imagine one
small section of the Pyramid that is about the size of a house. We can
use the microgravimeter to measure the gravitational force of this area.
We can compare this force with that generated by a second section of
the Pyramid of exactly equal size. What if the second section has a
smaller gravitational force? What would that mean? It’s the same “size”
as the first section, but it must have less mass. Why? One reason could
be that inside the area is a hollow space, an unseen chamber. There are
fewer stone blocks in this section, less mass, and thus a weaker gravita-
tional force. This is the principle of microgravimetry — detect minute
gravitational anomalies in the Pyramid and you might find a hidden
With the help of some high-placed friends, the two Frenchmen ob-
tained the backing of the French Ministry of Foreign Relations and
submitted their formal proposal to the Egyptian Antiquities Organiza-
tion. There are two very different kinds of permissions one can apply
for. One is to excavate, in which you’re requesting permission to dig
in the ground, shift sand, or move blocks of stone. Here, if you don’t
know what you’re doing, you can damage the tomb or temple you are
excavating. The second kind of permission is to survey a monument.
In this kind of project you merely want to map, diagram, and record
the monument. Operation Kheops’s application was for a survey. The
Frenchmen proposed the most comprehensive search for hidden cham-
bers ever. The proposal was accepted and soon Operation Kheops was
off to Egypt with a load of high-tech equipment.
Operation Kheops took thousands of readings with the microgravi-
meter, not just where they suspected the hidden chamber might be, but
up and down the entire Pyramid from all four sides. While they were
Modern Tomb Raiders
working, their architects drew maps of every wall in every known
chamber and passage in the Great Pyramid, producing the most de-
tailed plans of the Pyramid ever created.
When Operation Kheops returned to France, a Cray 1 supercom-
puter analyzed the thousands of measurements taken by the micro-
gravimeter and printed out the equivalent of hundreds of X-rays of
the Pyramid. Sure enough, the computer analysis showed some kind
of cavity behind the west wall of the passage leading to the Queen’s
Chamber, just where the Frenchmen had noticed the unusual stack-
ing of the blocks. 34 The new finding was so intriguing that the Egyp-
tian Antiquities Organization permitted the French to drill three small
holes through the wall to see if they could reach the hidden chamber.
After drilling the first hole for nearly nine feet, they found nothing,
just solid blocks of stone. They changed the angle of the second hole,
thinking that perhaps they had drilled above or to the right or left of
the hidden chamber, just missing it. Again, no luck. The third hole
was their last chance; they would be permitted no more drilling in the
Pyramid. Once again changing the angle, and after nearly nine feet of
solid rock, they broke through into a room filled with fine sand. What
had Hemienu done?
At first their instinct was to drill deeper, past the sand to see if there
was something beyond. But drilling deeper in such a narrow passage-
way would be difficult and it was not clear if the Egyptian Antiquities
Organization would permit more holes in their Pyramid. So the team
returned to France to retool their instruments for a more detailed mi-
crogravimetric survey of the newly revealed chamber. As they were
planning their return campaign, ajapanese team came up with an even
better way of seeing what was behind the wall — ground penetrating
radar (GPR). They too obtained permission from the Egyptian Antiq-
uities Organization to survey the Great Pyramid. Unlike the French
team, the Japanese were affiliated with a university, Waseda in Tokyo,
that had a tradition of excavating in Egypt. Their leader, Dr. Sakuji
Yoshimura, was a professional Egyptologist, so the Japanese had several
advantages over the amateurs.
From January 22 to February 9, 1987, the Japanese conducted their
survey using GPR. With ordinary radar, electromagnetic waves are
sent out by a transmitter, the waves are reflected by the target, and a
receiver interprets the reflected waves. With ground penetrating radar,
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
high-frequency radio waves are transmitted into the ground and the
receiver interprets the returning signals to determine if there are any
anomalies in the ground. GPR is used extensively in building projects
to make sure the foundation for a building isn’t above a natural cavern.
The Waseda team sent radio waves through the west wall of the cor-
ridor leading to the Queen’s Chamber, and confirmed a passageway
parallel to the west wall that is filled with sand. The Japanese were not
allowed to drill holes, so the contents of this space remain unknown.
Taking the French team’s discovery of the sand one step further, the
Japanese analyzed it under a microscope and learned that it is not local.
Sand at Giza and Saqqara is mostly calcite and other minerals. This sand
is almost pure quartz and the grains are much larger than those of local
sand. 35,36 What was so special about this sand that caused the ancient
builders to import it? And what was it doing inside the Pyramid? No
one knows the answer, but there are two points to be learned from the
French and Japanese expeditions to the Great Pyramid. The first is that
there are still discoveries to be made inside the Pyramid. The second,
as we shall see later, is that without realizing it, the French may have
discovered the internal ramp.
Athens, Greece, September 1988
S oon after the French team’s discovery, members of the team pre-
sented their findings at the annual international conference of the
IAEG (International Association for Engineering Geology and the
Environment). A high-tech conference, it highlights how new tech-
nologies can assist geological surveys, prospecting, and other ventures.
In 1988 the conference was held in Athens, and H. D. Bui, the team
member responsible for analyzing the data, presented the paper. Bui is
what scientists call a heavy-hitter. He is a distinguished member of both
the French and European Academies of Science. A slightly built man
of fifty who speaks with a gentle voice and a tone of authority, he has a
reputation for rarely being wrong. As he began his lecture, he stressed
the potential usefulness of microgravimetry to archaeology, and then
went on to describe the discovery of the chamber behind the west wall
and the sand that it contained. He explained that aside from this find-
ing, their project had nothing to add to the construction of the Great
Modern Tomb Raiders
Pyramid. He casually mentioned that his analysis of the data produced
one anomaly that didn’t make any sense, but it should be mentioned for
the sake of completeness. The anomaly showed “zones [that] are not
correlated horizontally and can suggest various building arrangements . . .
spiral constructions . . — ramp-like areas. No one seemed interested
in this observation and it passed without comment. Most of the scien-
tists were geologists, not particularly interested in archaeology.
The Grand Gallery
Giza, Egypt, 2519 b.c. (Year 10 in the reign of Khufu)
A round the tenth year of construction, the rafters of the Queen’s
Chamber were slid in place and Hemienu’s focus shifted
toward building the third and last burial chamber. However,
before constructing the King’s Chamber, Hemienu built another room,
a room so strange that no one has ever explained its purpose.
The Grand Gallery has puzzled Egyptologists for two centuries; it
just doesn’t make sense either as a room or a passageway. The gallery’s
most striking feature is its height — a soaring twenty-eight feet, which,
when compared to the other cramped passageways in the Pyramid,
makes it seem even higher. It leads up to the King’s Chamber, but if
it were only a passageway to a room, why the great height? There are
other inexplicable features. The base of the Grand Gallery is eighty-
two inches wide — almost seven feet — with stone benches twenty inches
wide and two feet high running along both sides of the walls for 150
feet, almost the entire length of the Grand Gallery.
What is the purpose of these benches? They constrict the walking
space to forty-two inches. Carved into the benches are slots at regular in-
tervals of one and a half cubits. (A cubit, the primary unit of length in an-
cient Egypt, was approximately twenty inches.) Again, to what purpose?
The Grand Gallery
The Gallery is corbelled in seven stages, each stepped inward three
inches. At the top the span is forty-one inches, much wider than the
corbelled ceilings in earlier pyramids. The only aspect of the Grand
Gallery easily explained is the 50 percent upward slope toward the
burial chamber. It is an easily measured incline. For each cubit you
build up, you go out twice the distance. This is called a 50 percent
grade. Such a slope is simple for workmen to follow, but this aspect of
the Grand Gallery is about the only one we do understand. The Grand
Gallery doesn’t make sense as a passageway, but it doesn’t make sense as
a room, either. It certainly wasn’t meant to hold the pharaoh’s treasures;
the proportions are all wrong for that. What was its function?
As Jean-Pierre worked out the details of his internal ramp theory,
he began to think more and more about the Grand Gallery. Then it hit
him. Perhaps the function of the Grand Gallery is connected in some
way to the next major construction, the King’s Chamber. Is there some
aspect of the King’s Chamber that is unique and would have led to the
construction of something like the Grand Gallery? At first glance, the
answer was “no.” But when he looked again at the details of the King’s
Chamber, the answer was “yes.” Forty-three huge granite beams rang-
ing from thirty to more than sixty tons each were used to build the
King’s Chamber. They had to be raised more than 140 feet onto the
Pyramid, and nothing like that had ever been done in Egypt.
Stone benches with slots in them line the
The angle of the Grand Gallery’s incline is
a 50 percent grade. For each cubit of height
you extend 2 cubits horizontally.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
The Egyptians were undeniably skilled at moving heavy stones. Two
thousand years after the Great Pyramid was built, they were moving
and erecting 250-ton obelisks, but we don’t have any ancient records of
how they did it. Our best indication of how they moved large stones is
painted on a wall of the tomb of Djehuti-hotep, who governed one of
the provinces of Egypt about 500 years after the Pyramid was built.
I love this painting. It reminds me of the scene in the 1923 Cecil B.
DeMille silent film The Ten Commandments where the oppressed Isra-
elites are hauling stones up a ramp. If you look closely you will see that
the men are hauling the stones up the unfinished obelisk that lies at
an angle in the Aswan granite quarry. With just as much drama as the
film, the tomb painting shows a colossal statue of Djehuti-hotep being
pulled by 172 men. The statue rests on a sled and a worker standing by
the statue’s feet pours water or oil in front to lubricate the way. There is
even an overseer, standing on the lap of the statue, who is clapping the
rhythm to which the men pull. Moving the statue was no easy feat. In
the painting we see men carrying large wood beams, perhaps replace-
ment parts in case the sled breaks. The hieroglyphs on the tomb wall
tell the story of moving the statue and how everyone was happy to par-
ticipate. Some divisions of the military were called in, but priests were
also hauling on the ropes. Locals pitched in, even the old and infirm.
“The aged one among them leaned upon the boy, the strong-armed
was with the trembler [palsied]. Their hearts rose, their arms became
strong.” 37 I think there must have been a similar feeling of camaraderie
Tomb painting of a statue of the nobleman Djehuti-hotep being pulled on a sled by 172 men.
The Grand Gallery
among Hemienu’s workers, a feeling they were participating in some-
The statue was thirteen cubits (twenty-two feet) high and weighed
approximately fifty-eight tons, as much as some of the huge granite
blocks that had to be raised forty-three meters up the Great Pyramid
to be used in the King’s Chamber. But there is an important differ-
ence. The statue was pulled on level ground; Hemienu had to raise
the blocks up a long ramp. The largest block used to build the King’s
Chamber is sixty-three tons and we can calculate that it would take ap-
proximately 630 men to pull a sixty-three-ton block up the Pyramid’s
ramp. It would have been extremely difficult to coordinate so many
workers and difficult to position so many men on the ramp. For cen-
turies Egyptian builders had used manpower to haul heavy blocks, but
now that the blocks had to be raised 140 feet, something entirely new
had to be invented. As Jean-Pierre created three-dimensional models
of the Grand Gallery, his architect’s mind concluded that the Gallery
wasn’t ceremonial, it was functional. As he added more and more de-
tails to the computer model, he realized its function. The Grand Gal-
lery was built to raise the huge granite beams.
Hemienu designed a counterweight system to raise the largest
blocks, and the heart of this system was the Grand Gallery. Think of
the Grand Gallery as a railroad track with the stone benches as the rails
on which the car will run. That’s why the Grand Gallery is so narrow
and that’s the purpose of the stone benches. Now imagine one of the
huge granite blocks at the bottom of the ramp with ropes attached to
the block that run up the ramp and at the other end are attached to the
trolley car at the top of the Grand Gallery. The trolley is loaded with
four-and-a-half-ton granite blocks that serve as counterweights. When
the brake is released, the trolley slides down the Grand Gallery and the
large granite beam is pulled up the ramp. It is a bit more complicated
than that, but not much. Jean-Pierre began to fill in more and more of
To reduce the friction between the bottom of the car and the bench
(remember, the Egyptians didn’t use wheels) and ensure that the coun-
terweights move smoothly down the Grand Gallery, rollers made of logs
were placed across the width of the Gallery, their ends resting on the
benches. The rollers thus form skids, very much like those used to slide
boxes of groceries from the delivery trucks down into the basements
When the counterweights were
released and slid down the Grand
Gallery, they pulled a large granite
beam up the external ramp.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
of supermarkets. The twenty-eight pairs of slots in the benches (spaced
one and a half cubits apart) were used as part of a braking system for
the trolley and counterweights, as well as for keeping the logs in line.
By inserting wood beams with carved ratchets into the slots, the trolley
could be held stationary at almost any point in the gallery.
The full run of the counterweight trolley was seventy-five cubits,
about 130 feet, not long enough to pull the beam up the full length of
the ramp. Eleven trolley trips were needed to raise each beam from the
base to the level of the King’s Chamber. Every time the trolley made
a run down the Grand Gallery, the beam would move 130 feet up the
ramp, and remain there until the trolley was brought to the top and
the rope shortened and reattached to the beam for another journey —
downward for the trolley and upward for the beam. Hemienu probably
realized that there was a way to speed up this whole process. Instead of
the entire length of the Gallery being spread with rollers, only half the
Gallery had rollers. Imagine that the rollers are at the top of the Gal-
lery, stretching only halfway down, and the counterweight trolley rests
upon them at the top. Now we release the brake and the rollers turn as
the trolley slides downward. But that’s not all. Because the rollers are
not fixed and only cover half the Gallery, they slide down the Gallery
along with the trolley, so the trolley is actually moving twice as fast as
the rollers. The trolley moves along with the rollers — that’s one unit
of speed — but as the rollers turn the trolley also moves down along the
rollers, a second unit of speed. This would have been another ingenious
labor-saving device that cut time from the construction of the Pyramid.
The counterweights, by themselves, do not provide enough force
to raise the largest beams. The system would have required an addi-
tional eighty men pulling, in addition to those reloading the trolley
and so on, but still, this is a tremendous savings from the 630 or so
men that would have been needed without the counterweight system.
Jean-Pierre is the first ever to suggest the Grand Gallery was designed
to lift the larger blocks. The idea is certainly possible, and even seems
reasonable, but so far it is just theory. Is there any real evidence that the
Gallery was used for this purpose?
Along both vertical faces of the Grand Gallery are long, deep
gouges that Jean-Pierre believes once held wood railings used to sta-
bilize the trolley as it went up and down. Raising all the large blocks
required approximately 800 round-trips of the trolley and it would
TOP: The trolley containing the counterweights moved on log rollers placed across the stone
benches in the Grand Gallery. BOTTOM: The slots in the stone benches were used to stabilize
TOP: Long gouges on the Grand Gallery’s walls may have held wooden “tracks” necessary to keep
the trolley in line. BOTTOM: When the Pyramid was completed the granite counterweights were
slid down the ascending passageway, sealing the entrance from tomb robbers. Three are still in place.
The Grand Gallery
be surprising not to see some physical signs of this. Running the full
length of the stone benches are two thin brown lines that look like
racing stripes. These could be the remains of grease used to lubri-
cate the trolley. A very close inspection of these lines shows deep
scratches, the kind of wear one would expect if the counterweight
theory is right.
Further evidence exists that the Grand Gallery was designed as a
counterweight system. At the bottom of the ascending passageway you
can still see some of the counterweights. When the Pyramid was com-
pleted, the granite counterweights were slid down the ascending pas-
sage to block the entrance from robbers. The ascending passageway is
intentionally two inches narrower at the bottom than at the top so that
when the counterweight blocks were slid down they would be stopped
by the narrowing and become wedged in place at the bottom. One of
these blocks was chiseled away by the caliph A1 Mamun’s men in the
ninth century when they forced their way into the Pyramid in search
of treasure, but two others still remain.
There is another bit of evidence for the counterweight system, but
it has been hidden for nearly a century. To maintain the stability of
the counterweight trolley and keep tension on the rollers, a cylindrical
A 191 1 photograph shows a groove for ropes in the large block at the top of the Grand Gallery.
The Grand Gallery
ballast stone was attached to the rollers. This weight hung down into
the ascending passageway.
There was a special V-shaped groove for the rope of this ballast
stone, but you can’t see it today. When modern tourists walk up the
Grand Gallery, at the top they climb up two metal rungs inserted in
a large block that enables them to continue on to the burial chamber.
The steps are modern additions, but the block itself has also been re-
stored. A photograph taken in 1911 shows it in its broken state with the
groove through which the rope holding the ballast stone ran.
If the primary purpose of the Grand Gallery was indeed to raise the
huge stones needed for the burial chamber, then this also explains the
unusually wide ceiling span at the top of the Grand Gallery. The coun-
terweight system was not only used to raise the huge beams up the ramp,
it was also used to raise them into position on top of the burial chamber.
For the entire time the giant beams were being moved, the ceiling of the
Grand Gallery had to remain open for the ropes to move freely.
The asymmetry of the Grand Gallery also suggests that the ceiling
remained open for quite a while. The Egyptians loved symmetry, so
anytime it is broken, there’s a reason. To the untrained eye the Gallery
The rigging system in the Grand Gallery used to haul the large granite beams up the ramp.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
looks perfectly symmetrical — a tall, narrow hallway with a corbelled
ceiling — but this is not quite the case. The narrow ends — the south
and north walls — look similar but were constructed differently. In the
lower end, the blocks of the sidewalls cross those of the north wall, as
in weaving. To do this, the north and sidewalls had to have been built
at the same time. Not so with the upper south end. Here the blocks of
the sidewalls do not cross those of the south wall. The sidewalls were
built parallel to each other and at some later date the blocks of the south
wall were slipped in place against the sidewalls. Why? So the south end
could remain open for the ropes of the counterweight system. As the
beams of the ceiling were set in place, the blocks forming the south
wall were also put in place. When all the giant beams were in place,
the counterweight system had exhausted its use, and the Grand Gal-
lery’s ceiling was roofed over. This asymmetry between the two ends
of the Gallery is just one more indication that the primary function of
the Grand Gallery was not as a passageway or chamber. For centuries
adventurers and Egyptologists had it wrong. If Jean-Pierre is right, the
Grand Gallery was Hemienu’s equivalent of the freight elevator.
At the lower end of the Grand Gallery, the
blocks cross those of the north wall, as in a
At the Grand Gallery’s upper end,
is no weaving and the blocks are parallel.
The Burial Chamber
Giza, Egypt, 2578 b.c. (Year 11 of the reign ofKhufu)
T he primary function of the Grand Gallery was to assist the
construction of the King’s Chamber, and to an ancient Egyp-
tian the King’s Chamber would have been a miracle — a large
rectangular room ten by twenty cubits (seventeen by thirty-four feet)
with a flat ceiling and thousands of tons of stone above it. How could
the ceiling support such weight? In the ancient world, spacious inte-
riors were impossibilities. There were no materials such as steel that
could span great distances without breaking, let alone support incred-
ible weight. That’s why ancient Egyptian monuments often seem claus-
trophobic. The Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple is a forest of tightly
spaced pillars because the columns supported a ceiling and couldn’t be
far from one another.
Earlier pyramids had used corbelling to construct interior spaces
within them, but they narrow toward the top. Hemienu pioneered a
new technique with the Queen’s Chamber by using huge limestone
rafters to distribute the weight above into the body of the Pyramid. But
neither of these techniques was used for the King’s Chamber.
The flat-ceilinged burial chamber is one of the most outstanding
engineering feats of the ancient world, and required incredible plan-
The columns of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple are closely spaced because they
supported a ceiling.
The Burial Chamber
ning. Before the walls were constructed, the king’s granite sarcopha-
gus had to be placed on the floor of the room to avoid having to haul
it up through narrow passages once the ceiling was built. With the
sarcophagus in position, the entire burial chamber was built of huge
slabs of Aswan granite finished and set in place so precisely that the
edge of a razor blade can’t fit between the blocks. As the walls of the
burial chamber were constructed, the Pyramid was built up around it
to the level of the room’s uncovered ceiling. It was now time to move
the massive ceiling beams in place. The ceiling is composed of nine
twenty-four-foot-long blocks weighing between forty-seven and sixty-
three tons each. Once again, the Grand Gallery’s counterweight system
was used to move huge blocks into position. Khufu now had his flat-
ceilinged burial chamber, but the architectural challenges were just be-
ginning. The flat ceiling could not support the weight of the upper
courses of the Pyramid that would be built over it, so above the burial
chamber a series of four relieving chambers — small granite rooms only
four feet high, made of granite beams — were constructed.
The first relieving chamber’s ceiling is made up of eight beams
weighing between forty-four and sixty-three tons, which were moved
The huge roof beams waiting to be pulled up by the counterweight system.
One of the relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber.
into place by the Grand Gallery’s counterweight system. Now we are
at a height of more than 150 feet and are higher than the Grand Gal-
lery, so the ropes used to haul the beams had to come out of the Grand
Gallery’s open ceiling. Once again the trolley with counterweights slid
down the Grand Gallery and the ceiling blocks were pulled into posi-
tion. Sometime around the fifteenth year of Khufu’s reign, the process
was repeated and a second relieving chamber directly above the first
was constructed using nine slightly smaller beams weighing between
thirty-five and fifty-three tons. The next year the ceiling was put on
the third relieving chamber using nine beams weighing between thirty-
five and fifty-seven tons. This same year the fourth and final relieving
chamber was completed.
The four relieving chambers above the burial chamber have puzzled
Egyptologists for years. What was their purpose? We have already said
that the flat ceiling of the burial chamber, even though constructed of
huge granite slabs, cannot support the weight of the Pyramid above it.
But doesn’t the same logic apply to the top relieving chamber? With
the weight of the Pyramid above, won’t its beams crack? The answer
The Burial Chamber
is “yes.” The relieving chambers don’t really solve the problem. That’s
why, above the fourth relieving chamber, there are rafters — eleven pairs
of huge limestone blocks forming an inverted V that take the pres-
sure off the ceiling and
direct the forces into the
solid mass of the Pyra-
mid. But if that’s the
case, why not put the
rafters directly above
the burial chamber and
do away with the reliev-
The answer liter-
ally points to the Grand
Gallery. If the rafters
had been placed di-
rectly above the ceiling
of the burial chamber,
the forces would still
have been directed off
the ceiling, but those
forces would have gone
directly into the hollow
Grand Gallery, caus-
ing it to collapse. He-
mienu knew this, so he
designed the relieving
chambers to raise the
rafters above the level of
the Grand Gallery. He
must have planned this
solution from the beginning, knowing he would need all those huge
granite blocks and the Grand Gallery to move them into place.
Situating the eleven pairs of giant limestone rafters above the last
relieving chamber marked a turning point in the construction of the
Pyramid. The burial chamber was now completed and Hemienu must
have breathed a giant sigh of relief. He had won the race to build the
perfect burial place for his aging pharaoh. All that remained was to
Above the last relieving chamber are huge limestone rafters
to take the weight above off the ceiling below.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
If the limestone rafters had been placed directly above the King’s Chamber, the Pyramid’s
weight would have been directed into the Grand Gallery and it would have collapsed.
build the uppermost part of the Pyramid, a small mass (27 percent of
the volume) compared with what had been completed. The upper part
contains no internal chambers or passages, so it should have been clear
sailing. It wasn’t.
Giza, Egypt, 2574 b.c. (Year 15 in the reign ofKhufu)
O nce Hemienu completed the King’s Chamber, three-quarters
of the volume of the Pyramid was in place, but Hemienu
was far from done. The last quarter of the Pyramid presented
an engineering problem no Egyptian architect had ever encountered
before. No one had ever raised blocks 480 feet in the air and the ex-
ternal ramp Hemienu had used up to now wouldn’t work for the top
blocks. When the King’s Chamber was completed, the Pyramid was
about 195 feet high. If the ramp were raised to accommodate the in-
creasing height of the Pyramid, the angle of incline would quickly go
beyond 8 percent, too steep for men to haul blocks up. If the angle
were kept below 8 percent, the ramp would have to be lengthened to
more than a mile to reach the top. That would mean the volume of
the ramp would increase to about the same as the Great Pyramid itself!
From the day he began building the Pyramid, Hemienu knew the time
would come when the exterior ramp could not be used, but he left no
record of how he solved the problem.
Hemienu must have sketched detailed plans of how he intended to
raise the blocks to the top of the Pyramid, but these diagrams have
not survived. It isn’t surprising that plans drawn forty- five centuries
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
ago have not survived; what is surprising is that no construction plans
of any kind have survived from ancient Egypt. Construction was the
ancient Egyptians’ major preoccupation. For 3,000 years they were
building big, but no plan survives. We have medical papyri, literary
papyri, business transactions, love poetry, but no construction plans,
and we don’t know why. Some scholars have suggested that building
was a trade secret, and perhaps architects didn’t want to write down
tricks of the trade, but this doesn’t seem right. As a temple was being
constructed, everyone could see how it was done, especially the work-
men. Building wasn’t an easy secret to keep.
The answer to why no plans have been found may be in plain sight,
carved into the Giza Plateau. The area around the Pyramid is not a flat,
smooth surface; there are all kinds of holes gouged into it. Some seem
to be postholes that once held poles erected to survey the Pyramid site.
The largest holes are huge, gaping 200-foot pits that were cut into the
limestone for the boats that would transport the pharaoh to the next
world. These boat pits are well known to Egyptologists, and tourists
also, but on the east side of the Pyramid, about a hundred feet from the
base, is a sixty-foot trench that practically no one knows about. It just
might be Hemienu’s plan for the Pyramid.
The trench was first recorded in the 1880s by the Englishman Wil-
liam M. Flinders Petrie, the father of modern Egyptology. Petrie stands
out as a strange character in a field populated by eccentrics. His frugal-
ity on expeditions is legendary. Once a young Egyptologist on one of
Petrie’s digs noticed that no toilet paper had been included in the ex-
pedition’s supplies. Afraid of asking Petrie, the young man approached
Lady Petrie with the crucial question, only to be told, “Sir Flinders and
I use potsherds.” 38
To save on food costs for his expedition, Petrie bought in bulk,
which sometimes meant that the archaeologists ate only tinned beef
for the entire season. To save on packing the uneaten tins and bring-
ing them back to England, at the end of the season Petrie would bury
them on the excavation site and mark the place on the expedition’s
map. Then at the beginning of the next season the tins would be dug
up and the banquet could begin anew.
Petrie’s father, a mechanical engineer, had read Piazzi Smyth’s book
and was interested in the Great Pyramid “for its symbolic interest relat-
ing to the higher ideas intentionally embedded therein by its origina-
tor,” so young Petrie grew up hearing about his father’s plan to do a
proper survey. For twenty years the father procrastinated, and in the
meantime, Flinders became a proficient surveyor and conducted the
first careful documentation of Stonehenge. Then in November of 1880,
the twenty-six-year-old Flinders Petrie embarked for Egypt, accompa-
nied by crates of scientific instruments.
Soon after landing in Alexandria, Petrie and his crates wended their
way to Cairo, where he found Ah Gabri, the same Egyptian assistant
Smyth had used. Soon Ali had Petrie ensconced in a comfortable tomb
with all the supplies he needed for his survey. Petrie’s system of survey-
ing was far more accurate than Smyth’s. With the aid of a theodolite
and a telescope, Petrie used the surveyor’s system of triangulation to
take thousand of measurements all over the Giza Plateau. To ensure ac-
curacy, he sometimes took the same measurement a dozen times. After
months of working in the scorching Egyptian heat, Petrie calculated
that his measurements of the perimeter of the Great Pyramid were ac-
curate to a hundredth of an inch.
Inside the Pyramid, Petrie was just as meticulous. Using a plumb
line to determine the vertical, he measured the walls at various heights
to detect the tiniest construction errors. Petrie was amazed at the ac-
curacy of the ancient builders. He carefully measured the only object
inside burial chamber, the empty sarcophagus made of the same mate-
rial as the chamber, granite, a material incredibly difficult to work.
Petrie concluded that to fashion it so precisely, the Egyptian stonecut-
ters used saws and drills embedded with hard jewels and concluded
that the Egyptians had tools better than his. Petrie was dead wrong on
this score. There were no precious stones in Egypt. Ancient Egyptian
tools were quite primitive, which makes the sarcophagus all the more
remarkable. When the Pyramid was built the only metal tools were
copper. The sarcophagus was the product of an astounding number of
man-hours, cutting, grinding, and pounding away until it was perfect
(see Appendix IV).
Petrie didn’t just study the Pyramid. He surveyed the entire Giza
Plateau, and in the course of his measurements discovered a curious
sixty-foot trench cut into the bedrock. He quickly noticed that it is an
exact model of the descending and ascending passageways in the Great
Pyramid. He calls it “trial passages . . . being a model of the Great
Pyramid passages, shortened in length, but of full size in width and
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
height .” 39 These trial passages are as finely cut as the passages inside
the Great Pyramid. Petrie’s nineteenth- century diagram of them shows
the angles of both the ascending and descending passages as almost ex-
actly the same as inside the Pyramid, and just like the Great Pyramid,
the passages are perfectly aligned north to south. The model is so well
crafted that some Egyptologists have suggested it is the abandoned be-
ginnings of a small pyramid . 40 What we are most probably looking at,
however, is Hemienu’s plan for the Pyramid, not written on papyrus
but carved in stone.
There are tremendous advantages to a three-dimensional model
over one drawn on paper. The model carved into the Giza Plateau is
large enough that you can climb down into it and see how it works. As
we have seen, when the Great Pyramid was completed, large granite
blocks were slid down the ascending passageway to seal it from tomb
robbers, thus the passage narrows very slightly at the bottom, to stop
the blocks in just the right position as they slide down. The trial pas-
sage narrows in just the same way and perhaps this is where Hemienu
tried out his ancient antitheft device, to see if the blocks would slide
smoothly down the passage . 41
Hemienu’s ancient model in stone is not unique. A model of a royal
tomb carved out of a single limestone block was found during the ex-
cavation of the Middle Kingdom pyramids at Dashur . 42 Corridors and
chambers are shown in such detail that you can even see how a sliding
Flinders Petrie’s nineteenth-century diagram of the plan carved into the Giza Plateau of
the Pyramid’s passageways.
block in front of the burial chamber was intended to seal the king’s
treasures from robbers. This is clearly an architect’s working model
used as a guide during the construction of the tomb. Hemienu’s model
cut into the limestone bedrock probably had a similar purpose.
All this suggests that ancient architects didn’t draw elaborate build-
ing plans on papyrus, so it is unlikely that we are ever going to find a
drawing by Hemienu showing how he intended to raise the two mil-
lion blocks. In order to figure out Hemienu’s secret, we must look for
The earliest report directly connected to the Great Pyramid is an
account by the famous Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt
around 450 b.c., two thousand years after Hemienu had completed
the Pyramid. Herodotus didn’t visit only Egypt, he went all over the
known world, and when he returned home he published the first travel
book ever, which he titled Historic i, Greek for “researches,” the deriva-
tion of our word “history.” His account of the pyramids has some glar-
ing inaccuracies and certainly can’t be taken as gospel. For example, he
says that there is “no block less than thirty feet in length.” 43 The truth
is, few blocks are more than five feet in length. What was he looking
at? Still, he has some interesting things to say about how the Pyramid
According to Herodotus, during its early stages of construction, the
Pyramid was a stepped pyramid. Then, by means of levers, the remain-
ing blocks were maneuvered up its steps. Herodotus adds that he is not
sure if there were levers at each step or if only one lever was used and
then carried up step-by-step as a block was raised. Different people told
him different methods. The notion of levers has been picked up by sev-
eral writers who suggest something like a shadouf may have been used.
This shadouf was used in ancient Egypt to raise water from the Nile
and continued in use through the twentieth century. It is a long pole on
a pivot. At one end of the pole is a bucket for water and at the other is a
weight, usually a dried ball of mud that makes it easy to lift the bucket
of water. There are scenes of shadoufs on ancient tomb wall paintings,
and when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his artists depicted the
shadoufs in action. At first it seems reasonable that this water-lifting
device could be converted to lifting blocks of stone up the Pyramid,
but in reality this idea had insurmountable problems.
Two-ton blocks would require very substantial wood poles and there
Napoleon’s artists sketched the shadoufs the
Egyptians used to raise water from the Nile.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
simply was not that much heavy wood in Egypt. Hundreds of shadoufs
working constantly would have been needed. Also, there was no room
to position the shadoufs. Many levels of the Pyramid are built of rela-
tively small blocks with ledges only about two-feet wide, certainly not
enough room for a shadouf. So the idea of levers simply will not work
for so many heavy blocks. But Herodotus mentions another possibility.
He says that for ten years the people of Egypt were forced to build
the road on which the stones were dragged and comments, “the making
of the road was to my thinking a task but a little lighter than the build-
ing of the Pyramid.” Although it is not certain that Herodotus is talk-
ing about a ramp, a later writer of antiquity, Diodorus of Sicily, is quite
Writing about three hundred years after Herodotus, Diodorus says
“the construction was effected by means of mounds, since cranes had
not yet been invented at that time.” 44 This is the earliest mention of the
ramp theory and started a controversy that would last for 2,000 years.
Did Hemienu use a ramp for the very top of the Pyramid? We are not
sure. Diodorus acknowledged that in his time only sand surrounded
the Pyramid, with no trace of the mound. Where did this massive con-
We know for certain that the ancient Egyptians used ramps for
some of their buildings. You can even see one being used if you visit
the tomb of an Egyptian named Rechmire, who lived during the 18th
Dynasty, more than a thousand years after the Great Pyramid was built.
Rechmire was at the top of the food chain — the vizier of Egypt, our
equivalent of a prime minister. As the highest official in the land, he
was responsible for all sorts of things, from administering justice to
overseeing the budgets of various building projects. Naturally, as the
vizier, he had a large and beautiful tomb whose walls are decorated
with scenes and events from his career. One wall is all hieroglyphs,
proclaiming Rechmire ’s biography and duties. Clearly impressed with
his office, one line states, “Let no man judge the vizier in his house.”
Rechmire wasn’t just beyond the law, he was the law. 45 But it wasn’t all
work for Rechmire. One wall of his tomb is covered with beautiful
paintings of him hosting a banquet. The ladies, assisted by servant girls,
are putting on makeup, people are eating and drinking — clearly Rech-
mire knew how to entertain.
On the wall opposite the banquet scene, various building projects
that Rechmire oversaw are depicted. Several sculptors are completing
a sphinx, while another group of workers polish a block of stone. The
technique for finishing a block was quite simple. On the wall we see
two men stretching a cord on the diagonal of the block. If part of the
block isn’t smooth and protrudes a bit more than the rest of the block,
it will cause a bulge in the string. That’s a spot that has to be polished
down. Amid all this activity, a building is being erected and to reach
the top the workers have constructed a ramp. Interestingly, the ramp is
not made of uniform material, such as bricks. It seems to be brick with
some rubble as filler. 46 On the bottom of the ramp what looks like a
roofing slab is being brought up the ramp to place on top of the walls,
which are shown in profile to the right. This ancient representation of
a ramp is important, but we can do even better. On the opposite side of
the Nile from Rechmire ’s tomb, at Karnak Temple, is an actual ramp.
A vast complex of temples built over a period of 2,000 years with
each pharaoh adding his monument, Karnak covers 300 acres. In front
of each temple stood a pylon — a giant gateway, usually carved and
painted with scenes of the victorious pharaoh smiting his foreign ene-
mies. The last pylon built at Karnak was constructed in Egypt’s decline
and was never completed. Even so, it is a huge, impressive mass, nearly
100 feet high and fifteen feet thick, built out of stone blocks. Obvi-
ously, some of the blocks had to be raised to the very top of the wall,
but here there is no doubt how it was done. The ramp is still in place
where 2,000 years ago the workmen put down their tools and never
returned. Now eroded and only about thirty feet high, the ramp once
reached to the top. From what remains we can see it was constructed of
several parallel mud brick walls, and the spaces between the walls were
filled in with rubble just like the representation on Rechmire’s tomb
wall. It is not difficult to use a ramp to build a 100-foot pylon, but
Egyptian tomb painting of a ramp being used in construction.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
when you consider building a 480-foot pyramid with a ramp, compli-
cations arise very quickly.
There are actually two competing theories of how ramps were
used to build the Pyramid, and deep down Egyptologists know that
both have fatal flaws. The more popular of the two, the external ramp
theory, is the easier to imagine. One long ramp on one side of the
Pyramid was the highway on which the blocks moved toward the top.
As we mentioned earlier, the problem is that there is a limit to how
steep the ramp can be and still permit two-and-a-half-ton blocks to be
hauled up by workers. Think about how you feel when walking up a
steep hill in a city, the kind that takes something out of you, perhaps
leaving you winded at the top. Now imagine having to haul not just
yourself but a block of stone behind you. That was Hemienu’s problem.
The hill (ramp) couldn’t be very steep, about an 8 percent grade, or
else the blocks couldn’t be hauled up. In order to have a gentle grade
but still reach the top of the 480-foot pyramid, the ramp has to be
about a mile long. That’s right: as long as fifteen football fields strung
together lengthwise. The volume of earth and stone needed for such a
huge ramp is just about equal to the volume of the Pyramid itself! So to
build the Pyramid using a single external ramp, you don’t just build the
Pyramid, you also have to build a second structure just as large. That’s
a lot of man-hours.
Then there is the question of where on the Giza Plateau you can
put a mile -long ramp. The plateau is just that, a plateau, and drops
precipitously to the desert below on the north side. On both the
east and west sides are cemeteries for the nobility that were built as
the Pyramid was constructed, so that leaves only one side as a possi-
bility — the south side, the only place a mile-long ramp could have
been built. However, no remains of such a large ramp have ever been
found. A couple of million tons of stone and earth don’t just disap-
pear. Although the single ramp theory is the most popular explana-
tion of how the Great Pyramid was built, it just doesn’t seem to work.
Time for Plan B, the corkscrew ramp.
To understand the second theory, we have to think in terms of a
road that winds up the side of a mountain. If the road went in a straight
line, from the bottom up to the top, it would be too steep even for cars.
To make the slope gentler, the engineers wrap it around the moun-
tain. It’s longer, but a lot less steep. This is exactly what has been sug-
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
gested for the Great Pyramid: that corkscrewing up the Pyramid, like
a mountain road, was a ramp on which the blocks were raised. The
virtue of this theory is that we don’t need a ramp stretching a mile
beyond the Pyramid. The theory also explains why the remains of a
giant ramp haven’t been found — the Pyramid itself was the ramp. It all
sounds so good, but Plan B also has a fatal flaw, one that only a builder
As the Pyramid rose year after year, the angle of incline had to be
carefully monitored. With a structure as large as the Great Pyramid,
if you are off by an inch at the bottom, by the time you reach the top
you could be off by yards and the Pyramid’s four edges won’t meet at
a point. Thus, as the Pyramid rose, surveyors had to make repeated
measurements along the edges of the Pyramid to make sure the angle
was constant. If, however, there were a ramp corkscrewing around the
Pyramid, the sight lines along the edges would have been obscured and
Hemienu couldn’t have watched the angle as carefully as he needed to.
So Hemienu did not use the corkscrew method. Whatever solution He-
mienu found, it wasn’t what people have proposed. Four thousand five
hundred years after Hemienu figured out how to raise the blocks to the
top of the Pyramid, a French engineer was closing in on the solution.
S oon after watching the television show on the Great Pyramid,
Henri Houdin sprang into action, putting his new idea that the
Pyramid was built front the inside out onto paper. He was an en-
gineer and began by imagining what he would do if he were awarded
the contract to build Khufu’s Pyramid. For the first time in 4,500
years, a builder was thinking like Hemienu. What materials would he
use? How would he bring them to the construction site? How do you
move the stones into place high up on the Pyramid? Soon graph paper,
pencils, and T-squares were out and he was drawing plans, all the time
trying to think like an engineer in ancient Egypt.
Now that he was retired, Henri could devote himself full-time to
his new project. As an engineer, he knew that both the single external
ramp and the external corkscrew ramp that he had seen on the televi-
sion show were impractical. There had to be another solution. Then
it came to him — build the ramp inside the Pyramid! With an internal
ramp, the blocks could be brought up the Pyramid without obscuring
sight lines, and as the Pyramid grew, so did the ramp. But what would
such ramp look like?
Henri Houdin’s first drawing of the internal ramp is dated January
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
4, 1999. It shows a single ramp looking very much like a spiral staircase.
In the upper right-hand corner of the plan is the notation “ramp with
8 percent slope.” Connected to the top and right sides of the ramp are
a series of parallel lines — ventilation ducts so the workers would have
fresh air as they hauled the blocks up the internal ramp. But then Henri
thought a single ramp would not be sufficient.
By January 24, a second plan had been drawn and it shows four
ramps winding through the Pyramid. There are four separate entrances
for the four separate ramps, each reaching a different level of the Pyra-
mid. Henri thought he had solved the internal ramp problem. He was
far from the solution, but he had taken the first big step forward.
Through the cold Paris winter Henri refined his drawings, trying
all the time to think like an Egyptian. It didn’t always work. At first he
imagined the blocks pulled on wheeled carts. It seems perfectly reason-
able, except that the Egyptians used sleds; wheels sink into sand. There
were other false starts, but by the end of the summer he was confi-
dent enough to try out the theory in public. In October of 1999 Henri
Houdin published a brief article on his internal ramp theory in the
journal of the French National Society of Engineers and Scientists. 47
He had discussed the article with his architect son and added Jean-
Pierre’s name as coauthor, but the architect knew there were some seri-
ous problems with the plans his father had drawn. Henri’s idea that the
inside, not the outside, determined how the Pyramid was built was bril-
liant, and the concept of an internal ramp was a quantum leap forward.
Sometimes in science The Big Idea comes from an outsider, someone
who hasn’t been indoctrinated about what is possible and what isn’t.
Henri was that outsider. Knowing practically nothing about ancient
Egypt, he was free of preconceptions about how the pyramids had been
built. The father and son talked about the Great Pyramid every time
they met. For Jean-Pierre it was just an interesting avocation his father
had taken up, something to keep a retired engineer’s mind sharp. Soon
he was teaching his seventy-five -year-old father how to use the latest
computer software to improve his drawings. But as Jean-Pierre looked
over his father’s drawings, he knew certain aspects couldn’t work.
First, you can’t pull heavy blocks of stone up a circular ramp. For ef-
ficient pulling you must move in straight lines; you can’t be turning all
the time. The second problem was that many blocks inside the Pyramid
weigh more than sixty tons. To pull a sixty-ton block up an 8 percent
Henri Houdin’s first drawing of the internal ramp dated January 4, 1999. Ventilation shafts for
the workers are indicated.
AU VXMm QU
Henri’s revised drawing with four internal ramps.
slope would require hundreds of men, and you simply can’t get that
many men inside an enclosed ramp. Therefore Henri’s internal ramp
couldn’t be circular and the largest blocks couldn’t be pulled through
any kind of internal ramp. Jean-Pierre was becoming intrigued. This
was a problem he would tackle, but unlike his father, he didn’t use
pencil and paper.
The first step was to learn more about the Pyramid. With his ar-
chitectural background, Jean-Pierre quickly absorbed the information
presented in the standard works on the Pyramid, but soon realized
that even the experts were lacking an essential component to solving
the mystery. All the plans were drawn two-dimensionally. They all
showed the Pyramid’s basic components: underground burial cham-
ber, Queen’s Chamber, King’s Chamber, and Grand Gallery, but only
on one plane, a cross section. How were these rooms related to one
another in three dimensions? Buildings are designed in three dimen-
sions. All the pyramid experts trying to figure out how it was built
were looking at flat, two-dimensional plans. Jean-Pierre was about to
become the first person since Hemienu to fully understand the interior
of the Great Pyramid in three dimensions.
During his sabbatical year, Jean-Pierre had obtained some of the
necessary computer skills he would need to tackle the mystery of the
Great Pyramid. Now he went one step further. Using software recently
developed for architects, he began to build computer simulations of
The standard two-dimensional diagram
of the Great Pyramid. Three dimensions
were needed to solve the problem.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
the Pyramid. Even with the new software, re-creating the interior
chambers of the Great Pyramid in three dimensions was incredibly
time-consuming. Each wall had to be built line by line to the exact
proportions of the Pyramid. In his Paris apartment, Jean-Pierre spent
first hundreds and then thousands of hours at his computer creating the
most detailed three-dimensional renderings of the interior of the Great
Pyramid ever. When the models were complete, he could select any
internal chamber, rotate it on his computer screen in any direction, see
how the chamber related to all the others, and begin to understand the
Pyramid’s internal secrets. But this was just a start.
The next step was to imagine what Hemienu must have seen as he
was building the Pyramid. Jean-Pierre created 3-D representations of
the Pyramid for each year of construction. Now he could actually see
the problems that had to be solved as the Pyramid rose above the Giza
Plateau. It was clear that when the Pyramid had reached the height of
the King’s Chamber, something other than the external ramp had to be
used to raise the blocks for the upper part of the Pyramid — but what
did the something else look like?
Jean-Pierre had now created more than a thousand computer simu-
lations of the Great Pyramid and an image of what the internal ramp
had to look like began to take shape in his mind. He always knew that
it had to be straight, not circular, as his father had drawn it, but that
still left the problem of turning corners. Moving blocks in a straight
line through the interior ramp was relatively easy — eight or so men
pulling a block on a sled, but you need lots of room to turn a corner
when you are hauling a large block because the men pulling need a
place to stand. So, to allow room for turning the blocks, at the end of
each straight flight of the ramp, a large space was left open at the corner
of the Pyramid. To actually turn the corner, the workmen could have
employed something like a shadouf, used up until recent times to lift
water from the Nile for irrigation. This ancient crane could have been
what Herodotus meant when he said the Egyptians used “machines” to
build the Pyramid. The block could be lifted, rotated 90 degrees into
position for hauling up the next flight of the ramp. Thus notches were
left open at every corner — that would also have provided fresh air for
the men working inside the ramp.
Designing the path and size of the ramp was a complex problem. It
had to be wide enough for the blocks and men but couldn’t be so wide
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
that its construction created engineering problems. Further, the path of
the ramp had to be designed so it didn’t intersect with the Pyramid’s
other passageways and chambers.
Jean-Pierre calculated that the ramp was about five cubits wide (nine
feet) with corbelled walls reaching a height of fifteen feet. The corbel-
ling ensured that the weight of the Pyramid above it wouldn’t crush the
ceiling. At its start near the bottom of the Pyramid, the ramp sloped at
about 7 percent and ran straight until it neared the end of one side the
Pyramid. Then it made a left turn and continued up the next side at the
same 7 percent slope; then another left turn, up the next side and so on
up the Pyramid. The Pyramid narrows as its height increases, so the
flights of the ramp get shorter and shorter as it corkscrews through the
Pyramid. The first straight stretch at the bottom was 575 feet long, but
after the internal ramp had made fourteen turns and was higher up in
the Pyramid, it would be only 150 feet long. In all, the twists and turns
wind through the Pyramid for more than a mile.
Jean-Pierre now had
worked out the basics of his
theory of how the Great Pyra-
mid had been built. In a sense
three methods had been used.
1) The blocks on the lower
levels of the Pyramid were
brought up on the short exter-
nal ramp. 2) The largest gran-
ite blocks used for the King’s
Chamber also came up on
the external ramp, but with
the help of a counterweight
system inside the Grand Gal-
lery. 3) The smaller blocks on
the upper levels of the Pyra-
mid were brought up via an
internal ramp. The theory was revolutionary, but it seemed to solve all
the problems other theories had left unresolved. Still, it was just a theory,
and with no physical evidence to support it, it would remain just another
theory. The Houdins desperately needed hard evidence to support the
theory. When it came, it was from a most unexpected source.
The internal ramp was designed so it would not
intersect with any passageways or chambers.
Paris, August 2000
I n the summer of 2000 Henri Houdin visited the French company
that had conducted the microgravimetric study of the Great Pyra-
mid in 1986, but fourteen years later not everyone who had been
on the team was still with the company. Henri met with Pierre Deletie,
the company’s geologist. When he showed Deletie Jean-Pierre’s draw-
ings of what the internal ramp must look like, Deletie was amazed.
It looked remarkably like an anomaly his team detected that had re-
mained in the files for fourteen years. He promised to look for the
printout and give Henri a copy.
True to his word, Mr. Deletie sent the printout of the anomaly to
Henri. Henri was astounded. It was as if someone had photographed
their theory. Spiraling up the Pyramid was the internal ramp! Henri
excitedly called Jean-Pierre, who rushed over to see what was so amaz-
ing. As soon as he saw it, he knew that he had found the big idea he was
looking for. The internal ramp was too important to give up. He had
to develop the theory a far as it could go, fill in even more details, and
most important, see if more evidence could be found to support it.
Seeing how important this was to the Houdins, Deletie suggested
they talk with Hui Duong Bui, the man responsible for the calcula-
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
The first empirical evidence for the internal ramp was this 1 986 computer-generated image of
low-density areas within the Great Pyramid. They look remarkably like the internal ramp.
tions that produced the image. A week later, Henri and Bui were deep
in conversation about the Great Pyramid of Giza. Bui explained that
they hadn’t totally ignored the anomaly; they just didn’t know what to
make of it. The team’s leading theory was that they were picking up
ancient traces of a ramp that once corkscrewed up the outside of the
Pyramid. Perhaps somehow all the hauling had compressed the area,
making it denser. Deep down they knew this couldn’t be right, but it
was the best explanation they could come up with at the time. Once
Bui heard the details of the internal ramp theory, he was a convert. An
internal ramp spiraling upward through the Pyramid is the only thing
that could cause such a printout. The internal ramp theory had its first
The Houdins were incredibly encouraged to hear that the French
had found evidence for the internal ramp without even knowing it.
With this new ammunition, they were more positive than ever that they
were right. Jean-Pierre returned to his computer to refine his models,
to see if he could figure out more of the details of construction. The
carefree days of traveling were over for a while. He wanted to stay in
Paris to meet people to discuss and refine the theory. Michelle had seen
the obsession coming and quickly realized how big Khufu’s Pyramid
would be in their lives; she told Jean-Pierre, “If you want to go with
Khufu, go straight to the end. You will have to explain everything.”
They rented a small apartment in Paris in their old neighborhood and
for the next year Jean-Pierre worked intensely at his computer, trying
to understand exactly how the Grand Gallery fit into the picture with
the internal ramp. Often he called his father to say, “You are the en-
gineer, can you do the calculations to figure out how many men are
needed to haul such a block of stone, how much manpower was needed
for this task?”
By October of 2001, the money from the sale of their apartment was
running out. For three years Jean-Pierre and Michelle had lived on that
sale, without any income, and now the bank account was dangerously
low. Fortunately one of the renters in one of their studio apartments
moved out. Without hesitation, they sold it so Jean-Pierre could con-
tinue the Pyramid quest. During the next year, he began to complete
details of the connection between the internal ramp and the Grand Gal-
lery. But by the end of 2002, the money was running out once again.
Another rental apartment became free and was sold. Jean-Pierre was
still in the game, at least for a while. As Jean-Pierre refined his theory
more and more, he decided to talk to the French team again to see if he
had missed anything, or perhaps they had forgotten something.
Paris, January 2003
A t the beginning of 2003, Jean-Pierre had another meeting
with the French Operation Kheops team that surveyed the
Pyramid. He described the theory of the internal ramp in
detail and mentioned the angle of incline and the notches at the cor-
ners that had to be left open so the blocks could turn the corners. One
of the team members, Jean-Pierre Baron, remembered something pe-
culiar he had seen when taking measurements up and down the Pyra-
mid. At about 275 feet up the Pyramid, on the northeast corner, was
a notch! This was essentially where the Houdins’ theory would place
the ramp’s ninth notch! The French team measured the notch when
they were doing their study and mentioned that it was seven feet six
inches on each side — a square. In ancient Egyptian terms that trans-
lates to five cubits square, a perfect Egyptian measure. The internal
ramp theory now had its second empirical confirmation, but there was
more to come.
Baron also remembered seeing a desert fox disappear into a hole
next to the notch. Why would a fox climb 275 feet up the Pyramid to
find a hole? Perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps it found an entrance hole to the
ramp near the bottom and then made its way up the ramp. It would
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
be interesting to attach a telemetry device to a fox and send it through
the hole and track its movements. Would it show the animal moving
through the internal ramp?
The internal ramp seemed more and more promising, but there was
something else that Jean-Pierre had to explain. Where were the re-
mains of the external ramp used in the early stages of the Pyramid’s
construction? Although the ramp was used only up to about a third of
the Pyramid’s height, it was still a huge construction using thousands
of tons of materials, but it had vanished without a trace. Somehow the
missing external ramp was tied to the construction of the rest of the
Pyramid, but how? Then, all at once, it became clear; he knew where
the ramp was. He had found the solution. Of course, Hemienu had
beaten him to it by 4,500 years.
A notch on the northeast corner of the Pyramid may be a remnant of one of the internal ramp’s
corners that was left open.
• ' .
The Internal Ramp
Giza, Egypt, 2510 b.c. (Year 19 of the reign ofKhufu)
W hen Hemienu saw the rafters above the last relieving
chamber put in place, he had the Grand Gallery roofed
over completely. It was no longer needed; no more huge
granite blocks required lifting. At this point the Pyramid was 200 feet
high and the exterior ramp that had been used for the first sixteen
years could no longer be used. If it were raised to accommodate the
increasing height of the Pyramid, the angle of incline would quickly
go beyond 8 percent, too steep for men to haul blocks up. It was finally
time for the internal ramp to serve its purpose.
From the beginning, Hemienu knew the time would come when
the exterior ramp could not be used. For that reason, he constructed it
out of rough limestone blocks just like the filler blocks inside of Pyra-
mid, only a bit smaller. Now that the exterior ramp had served its pur-
pose, it was dismantled and the blocks with which it was constructed
could be reused to build the rest of the Pyramid. Thousands of years
later, archaeologists would puzzle over where the ramp had gone. The
answer was in plain view, on top of the Pyramid.
Once again Hemienu’s incredible planning was on display, but no
one saw it. The top of the Great Pyramid was built from the blocks of
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
the dismantled exterior ramp. The limestone blocks that composed the
ramp are slightly smaller than the average block used in the interior of
the Pyramid. The blocks had to be smaller because they were going to
be hauled through the confined space of the interior ramp. So as the
exterior ramp was being taken down, its blocks were moving through
the passage up to the top of the Pyramid where they were pushed into
position. This explains why no one has found huge piles of debris from
As the Pyramid neared completion, Hemienu must have felt both
relief and a great sense of satisfaction. Khufu was alive and well, the
burial chamber was complete, and the blocks from the external ramp
were now moving up through the internal ramp and being placed at
the top of the Pyramid. In just a few years the capstone would be in
place on the greatest monument ever built. But just as Hemienu was
feeling as secure as he could about the project, disaster struck. The
burial chamber’s roof beams cracked. They were small cracks, but He-
mienu had reason to be concerned. Just forty years earlier, the walls of
the Bent Pyramid had cracked during construction, and the pyramid
had to be abandoned. Hemienu could not afford to abandon the Great
Pyramid at this stage; his pharaoh was aging and there was no time to
build a second pyramid.
He needed to know what was going on above the ceiling. Were
other parts of the Pyramid cracking? At the top of the Grand Gallery
he had his stonemasons chisel a small thirty-inch tunnel through the
limestone so he could enter the relieving chamber above the ceiling of
the King’s Chamber. As he crawled through the tunnel he had no idea
of what he would find. Had the second relieving chamber come crash-
ing down into the first? He crawled into the pitch-black little chamber
and moved his oil lamp around. No disaster.
The floor of the relieving chamber consists of the tops of the ceil-
ing beams and Hemienu could now examine the cracks from both sides
of the beams. It didn’t look serious, but it could get worse. He had
workmen plaster the cracks on the beams. This was not to stabilize the
beams; plaster won’t do that. Rather, the plaster would tell him if the
cracks got larger as the Pyramid was completed and more and more
blocks were piled above. Hemienu’s technique is similar to what archae-
ologists do today to tell if monuments are stable. If there is a crack in
the wall, something looking like a plaster Band-Aid is placed across the
Plaster strips on the cracks in the King’s Chamber help Egyptologists detect if the cracks get
The Internal Ramp
crack. If the wall moves, the crack enlarges, the plaster cracks, and the
archaeologist knows he has a problem. Hemienu’s roof beams held, and
although the ceilings of two of the relieving chambers above cracked,
the plaster didn’t move, so he never had to cut a second tunnel going up
into the second relieving chamber to check on those beams.
Giza, Egypt, 2569 B.c. (Year 20 in the reign ofKhufu)
B y Year 20 of Khufu’s reign, the Pyramid was nearing completion.
It had reached a height of 360 feet and 98 percent of the volume —
2,550,000 cubic meters — was in place, but there were still about 130
feet to complete. With the end so near, changes in the internal ramp
were necessary. The area on top of the Pyramid was getting quite small.
At this point the straightaways of the ramp were only 125 feet long and
as they approached the top they decreased to only eighty feet. To avoid
running into the corner notch below it, the angle of the ramp had to
be increased considerably. It was more difficult to pull the blocks up
the steeper incline, but with a small block, weighing only half a ton,
this was still possible. However, the internal ramp was nearing the end
of its usefulness. By the time it reached the 400-foot level, the angle of
incline was 20 percent and almost all the energy of the men hauling
would have gone into just raising their own bodies up the ramp.
There is a mechanical trick that the haulers could have used. If they
stood on level ground at the notch ahead of the block and pulled, then
none of their energy would go toward raising their body weights. This
is the kind of technique Hemienu would almost certainly have learned
from the previous century of building in stone.
At the top of the Pyramid, the internal
ramp’s angle of incline had to be
increased to avoid hitting the notches
at the corners below it.
The workers may have stood on level ground to pull the blocks up, thus saving the energy of
having to raise their own weight.
Along with the three pharaohs’ pyramids
at Giza are several smaller ones for their
The pharaoh Sneferu built three huge
pyramids and developed the techniques for
building an internal room in pyramids. His is
the first instance of a king’s name depicted
in a cartouche.
Entrance to the Step Pyramid of Saqqara,
the first pyramid in history.
The staircase at the Ptolemaic temple of Dendera may be a descendant of the internal ramp
inside the Great Pyramid.
The sphinx has the head of King
Kephren and the body of a lion.
The fallen statue of Ramses the Great at his mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, weighed nearly
1 ,000 tons.
The Osirion at Abydos was a cenotaph — a false burial — for Osiris, God of the Dead.
The authors planning their Egyptian itinerary. Jean-Pierre Houdin is in black.
Karnak Temple was built by a succession of pharaohs over a period of more than 1 ,000 years.
T he last major engineering task was the positioning of the cap-
stone, basically a small pyramid, on the very top of the Pyramid.
The pyramidion, as it is called, was made of fine limestone and
probably covered with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and might
have weighed as much as fifteen tons. 48 We don’t know the details of
how it was raised, but it certainly would have required advance plan-
ning because it is too large to be moved through the cramped internal
ramp. After weeks on the computer, Jean-Pierre figured out a possible
scenario for the capstone’s movements.
During the fourteenth year of Khufu’s reign, the pyramidion and
the beams and rafters for the King’s Chamber were pulled up the ex-
terior ramp to the top of the Pyramid, which was now 150 feet high.
For the next five years the capstone moved upward, course by course,
as the Pyramid was being built. It could have been suspended in a
wooden pyramid-shaped cradle. The ropes holding the capstone could
be twisted, much the same way children twist the chains supporting
swings. As the ropes twisted, they shortened, and the capstone was
raised a bit. Wedges were slid under the capstone, and using wedges,
the cradle was raised the same height. Now the process was repeated
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
with the capstone moving slowly upward. This device is called a Span-
ish winch. 49 When the capstone had been raised to the full height of
one course of the Pyramid, normal pyramid blocks were placed under
it and the Pyramid course was completed around it. This process con-
tinued for five years and more than 100 courses until the capstone was
near the top of the Pyramid. At this point working space was very
small and special scaffolding was needed to lever and position the pyra-
midion 480 feet above the Giza Plateau. It was now Year 20 of Khufu’s
reign and the Pyramid was nearly complete.
During the next few years, the finishing touches are added to the
Pyramid. The last fine casing blocks are put in place at the top. The
notches left open at the corners of the internal ramp are filled in from
the top down with blocks brought through the internal ramp and the
ramp is now sealed inside the Pyramid. The last remains of the external
ramp and the internal ramp’s small exterior access ramp are removed
and all traces of Hemienu’s construction techniques vanish. Khufu’s
burial place is ready for eternity. Hemienu has done it. With the excep-
tion of the cracks in the King’s Chamber, we know of no other close
call endangering the completion of the Pyramid. There was no way
that Hemienu could have ever figured out what caused the cracks. The
answer to that was buried deep inside the Pyramid.
The hole that Hemienu had his men make so he could enter the re-
lieving chamber would not be discovered until 1764, when an English-
man vacationing in Egypt decided to explore the Pyramid. Nathaniel
Davison was visiting Egypt with his friend Edward Montagu, Eng-
land’s former consul to Cairo, and thought it might be entertaining to
search the Pyramid for hidden treasure. After unsuccessfully searching
the lower portions of the Pyramid, he turned his attention to the mys-
terious Grand Gallery. At the upper end of the Gallery, he heard echoes
of his own voice and deduced that there must be an opening leading
to a chamber. Placing a lit candle on the end of a long pole, he probed
the darkest recesses of the Gallery and discovered the hole Hemienu
had made forty-five centuries earlier. Lashing seven ladders together to
reach the opening, he had to clear out more than a foot of bat guano
before he could squeeze through the hole. There was, of course, no
treasure, only the stifling smell of bats. He left the relieving chamber
with no material rewards, but the chamber is still known today as Da-
During the following decades adventurers would squeeze through
the hole, but none went farther than Davison’s Chamber until Colonel
Howard Vyse appeared on the scene in 1836. Vyse was wealthy enough
to hire John Perring, a civil engineer, to assist his investigation. 50 They
set up living quarters in a nearby tomb and conducted the most thor-
ough examination of the Pyramid up to that time. Vyse’s workmen
cleared the Sphinx, which was covered up to its neck in sand, dug up
the flooring of the Queen’s Chamber, and searched the Pyramid for
hidden rooms. 51
When they investigated Davison’s Chamber, they spotted a crack
in one of the granite roof beams above them and pushed a three-foot-
long reed through the crack, concluding that there must be a chamber
above. Soon Vyse’s Arab workmen were chipping away at the granite
above them. When the granite proved too hard for them, Vyse sent for
experienced masons from the Tura quarry across the river. The quarry-
men, however, were used to soft limestone and the granite proved too
difficult for them, also. Plan C was gunpowder.
A workman named Daoud, sent in to do the dangerous and dirty
work, eventually succeeded in blasting a hole through a corner of one
of the huge beams forming the ceiling above Davison’s Chamber. In the
second relieving chamber they found the floor covered with millions
of exoskeletons shed by insects that had bred in the chamber, prob-
ably soon after it was sealed. Vyse patriotically named the new chamber
after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had sunk Bonaparte’s fleet at the
battle of the Nile in 1798.
Daoud continued blasting his way upward and discovered the third
relieving chamber, which Vyse named after another of Napoleon’s de-
featers, the Duke of Wellington. Like the others, Wellington’s Cham-
ber was empty, so Vyse and his workers continued the difficult process
of blasting upward. They were rightly afraid of causing a total col-
lapse of the relieving chamber above them, and when Daoud did set
off a charge, he had to watch out for flying granite chips. Reaching
the fourth of the relieving chambers, they switched from naming them
after British heroes, and named this one after Lady Arbuthnot, who had
visited the Pyramid on May 9, 1837, just after the chamber was discov-
ered. At this point Vyse must have been wondering when the succes-
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
sion of relieving chambers would end. Finally, Daoud blasted through
to the fifth and last relieving chamber, revealing the huge limestone
rafters that Hemienu had set so precisely in place forty-five centuries
ago. They named this chamber after England’s consul to Cairo, Colo-
Vyse didn’t find any treasures, but he discovered four relieving
chambers not seen since Hemienu constructed them. In addition, he
copied the workmen’s ancient graffiti on the walls of the chambers
and sent it to Dr. Samuel Birch, Keeper of Antiquities at the British
Museum and one of the few scholars who could translate ancient Egyp-
tian. Birch was able to read the cartouches containing Khufu’s name,
conclusively establishing that the Pyramid did, indeed, belong to King
Khufu. Vyse was also the first to notice the cracks in the beams of
the second relieving chamber, but he had no idea when they cracked
or why. That discovery would come much later, when Jean-Pierre ac-
quired a new computer program and a very powerful friend.
The Difficult Years
J ust as Jean-Pierre and his father were nearing the solution to how
the internal ramp and Grand Gallery worked together in the con-
struction of the Great Pyramid, personal tragedy struck for both.
Jean-Pierre’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the
next few years as Renee Houdin spiraled inevitably downward, Henri
was tethered to his house in the countryside taking care of his wife.
Project Khufu became his lifeline with the outside world, helping him
through the dark years. Every morning and every evening for years,
Jean-Pierre would call to give news of the project and to get news
about his mother. When her death finally came, Henri had lost thirty
pounds and was a broken man, but with Jean-Pierre’s encouragement,
he began to reconnect with the outside world. He was needed; Project
Khufu was in trouble.
Michelle and Jean-Pierre were living in a minuscule studio apart-
ment of only 236 square feet with a bed that folded out of a false closet.
Michelle edited her experimental videos at one end of the only table
while at the other end Jean-Pierre worked on the Pyramid project. Jean-
Pierre assured Michelle, “Don’t worry. We will only be living here for a
few weeks.” (They stayed four years.) They had calculated that with no
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
traveling, they could hold out for nearly a year. The theory was almost
complete. Jean-Pierre had concluded that the counterweight system in
the Grand Gallery was used to bring the granite ceiling beams up the
external ramp and also that the top of the Pyramid was built from the
blocks used to construct the external ramp. Many other details were
also in place, but without outside help they would soon have to give up
Jean-Pierre knew that he needed the support of the Egyptologi-
cal community. For him, the United States was a place where new
starts were made, new ideas were welcomed, so he took the directory
of American Egyptologists and began sending e-mails. One, Jack Jo-
sephson, wrote that he should contact an Egyptologist whose name was
Bob Brier. That led to dinner at my place and the subsequent meeting
with Dieter Arnold. But Egyptological moral support was one thing;
Jean-Pierre desperately needed something more substantial.
Jean-Pierre began giving talks to professional engineering groups,
both to see how the theory would be received and in the hopes of
finding a sponsor. The responses to the theory were overwhelmingly
positive. Professional engineers and architects were impressed. The first
firm to offer assistance was the Thales Group, a high-tech radar com-
pany that was developing a new kind of radar that might be used to
detect the internal ramp inside the Great Pyramid. In preparation for
a test, they began testing their equipment on Coucy Castle, a thir-
teenth-century limestone fortress sixty miles north of Paris. If a hidden
4,500-year-old internal ramp was going to be discovered, they wanted
to make sure it was with their equipment. Their technical expertise
was extremely welcome, but financial support was going to be needed
to keep Project Khufu afloat.
Jean-Pierre’s brother, Bernard, arranged a meeting with Eiffel, an
engineering firm with a pyramid connection — they built the glass
pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris. Jean-Pierre presented the in-
ternal ramp theory to a small group of their engineers and executives.
It seemed to go very well, but he couldn’t be sure. The next day he
received an e-mail from one of the senior engineers. “I think you are
at the beginning of a discovery far more important than King Tut’s
tomb.” Eiffel was keen to support the project and was transferring
25,000 euros to the project’s war chest. A very encouraging first step;
the ball was beginning to roll.
The Difficult Years
Bernard was able to arrange another meeting for Jean-Pierre, this
time with the Air France’s public relations manager for Africa and the
Middle East. After six months of phone tag, the meeting finally took
place and Jean-Pierre, laptop in hand, explained his theory over lunch.
At the end, Mr. Brousse, the manager simply said, “Welcome on board,
dear partner!” Air France couldn’t give money but they would fly Jean-
Pierre for free anywhere he had to go for Project Khufu. Now he could
reduce expenses and wouldn’t have to pay for trips to New York and
Cairo. Jean-Pierre had finally started visiting the Pyramid!
Soon other sponsors came on board. Everyone wanted to be part
of the discovery. French and Egyptian companies contributed cash to
a war chest that now held 100,000 euros. Project Khufu was finally on
firm ground and the solitary architect in black was no longer alone.
With sponsorship came recognition. On May 18, 2005, Jean-Pierre was
again giving a lecture in Paris about his work on the Great Pyramid,
but not to raise funds. He was receiving the Montgolfier Prize, a reward
given by SEIN (Societe d ’Encouragement pour Flndustrie Nationale),
a foundation set up by Napoleon in 1802 to encourage national indus-
try. Jean-Pierre received the medal for his contributions to architecture
and beaux-arts. Jean-Pierre ’s proud father joined him onstage to share
the award. When Henri Houdin said, “I have a 5 percent share in the
story and Jean-Pierre 95 percent,” Jean-Pierre replied, “I would never
have had the 95 percent without that first 5 percent.” Sponsorship and
recognition had finally come. And the greatest boost to Project Khufu
was just around the corner.
The Internal Ramp Goes Public
Paris, June 3, 2005
I n academia, ideas are constantly being tested, first at conferences
and later by publication. This is when you really know if what you
are proposing works. Because Jean-Pierre is an architect, not an
academic, his ideas didn’t take this route. One of the first things I no-
ticed when he gave me some of his writings to read is that there were
no references. Normally when you tackle a problem, you survey the
literature, read everything on the subject you can find, and list your
sources. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Jean-Pierre just sat
down at the computer and started working, which put him at a disad-
vantage. He had not published the details of his theory nor had he had
serious discussions with those qualified to evaluate the theory . 52 Some
of his earlier informal talks to engineers had created a buzz about the
theory and now his father’s professional organization, the Societe des
Ingenieurs des Arts et Metiers, wanted Jean-Pierre to give a talk. It
was the perfect chance to test the waters. The civil engineers would
give him needed feedback on the theory but they would be a friendly
The hour lecture went well. There were some questions about
details, but no one had any serious objections to the theory, or at
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
least they didn’t mention any. In the audience was the former man-
ager of Peugeot/Citroen who had been in charge of digital designing
and manufacturing. He understood how heroic Jean-Pierre’s solitary
effort at digitally reconstructing the Great Pyramid was, and he was
equally impressed with the theory itself. He thought it was correct.
He was familiar with Dassault Systemes’ software and thought that if
Jean-Pierre had access to their programs he could take his simulations
to another level. Dassault Group is a multibillion-dollar corporation
founded by Marcel Dassault, father of the famous the Mirage jet. One
of their divisions, Dassault Systemes, designs 3-D engineering soft-
ware. Without telling Jean-Pierre, he called Dassault Systemes and
told them about this obsessed genius in a studio apartment in Paris
who seemed to have solved the riddle of the Great Pyramid on his
Two weeks after his lecture, Jean-Pierre left Paris for Cairo. As he
sat having a drink in the garden of his hotel, his phone rang. Rich-
ard Breitner from Dassault Systemes wanted to talk to him about his
theory. At first Jean-Pierre was worried because the cost of the call
could be charged to his cell phone, but after a minute talking with
Breitner, he knew the conversation would be worth the cost. Das-
sault Systemes had a new program called Passion for Innovation through
which they sponsor a scientist who is thinking outside the box and
who does not have access to the usual support systems supplied by
universities or corporations. The two men agreed to meet as soon as
Jean-Pierre was back in Paris.
Paris, June 30, 2005
O n a warm sunny June afternoon, Jean-Pierre had his first meeting
with Richard Breitner. A forty-year-old engineer with an intense
interest in computer graphics, Breitner was in charge of Dassault corpo-
rate systems. From the beginning they knew it would be a perfect mar-
riage. Richard had been interested in ancient Egypt and hieroglyphs
since he was a boy and he even dressed in black! With Richard was
Mehdi Tayoubi, marketing director for the company. Mehdi was about
thirty, a champion of what could be done with 3-D software, but his
The Internal Ramp Goes Public
role would be quite different from Richard’s. Richard was a high-level
technical person; Mehdi was responsible for getting the word out about
Dassault Systemes’ new innovations.
Jean-Pierre did his laptop presentation, but unlike the show in my
apartment two years earlier, the audience understood everything Jean-
Pierre was talking about. After a few hours, they were hooked. They
immediately agreed to work together, the only question was how.
Mehdi and Richard felt the Great Pyramid was interesting to everyone
and would be the perfect showcase for Dassault Systemes to strut its
stuff. As the three talked they became more and more excited. They
would re-create the entire building of the Great Pyramid in 3-D simu-
lation. Not only would the images present the theory, they would be
used to validate it. Dassault Systemes often built entire virtual factories
for its clients. The idea was to see if everything worked well together.
Do the conveyor belts have room around them so they don’t overheat?
Are the workspaces large enough to accommodate four mechanics
working on an engine? Are the cables in the elevators strong enough
to lift heavy freight? These questions can be answered in a virtual fac-
tory, before the real one is built. This is how Jean-Pierre, Richard, and
Mehdi intended to test the internal ramp theory. They would build the
Pyramid, build the internal ramp, have little guys on their computer
screen haul the blocks up, and see if it worked. Computer modeling
was used all the time to test future constructions; now for the first time
they would apply this technology to an ancient monument. Jean-Pierre
now had the sponsorship and technical support he needed to take the
theory further. He left the meeting elated. It was one of the best days
of his life. An organization with seemingly unlimited resources under-
stood and appreciated what he was doing and was going to adopt him.
The first thing he did was call his father.
Project Khufu began in earnest in September. Jean-Pierre was sent
to Dassault Systemes’ software school for a crash course in CATIA, their
flagship 3-D software. As Jean-Pierre was learning new computer skills,
teams of engineers from different departments under Richard Breitner’s
direction began to redraw the Great Pyramid in all its glory. For more
than a year the team worked to create the complete virtual Pyramid
and workforce. Mehdi, Richard, and Jean-Pierre formed the “Triumvi-
rate,” each member with his own part to play. Later, Jean-Pierre would
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
describe it as a “dream team, with no one wanting credit.” They were
all working to transfer Jean-Pierre’s vision to a remarkable 3-D ani-
mation. Soon it began to take form. The counterweight system in the
Grand Gallery moved up and down on virtual log rollers, thousands of
workers toiled in virtual quarries, pulled on virtual ropes, and carried
virtual water for other laborers. By midyear 2006, the program was op-
erating. There were no obvious contradictions in Jean-Pierre’s theory.
Blocks didn’t get stuck, ropes didn’t snap, and workers didn’t collapse.
It was a great success, but Mehdi had an even more ambitious project
Mehdi was creating a new Dassault Systemes Web site and wanted
to put the virtual Pyramid on the site for all to see, but he felt that their
scientific re-creations weren’t the end. He wanted something more,
something like films that people paid to see in theaters. As the team
worked on the CATIA presentation, their company bought a small
start-up company, Virtools, whose software was perfect for 3-D ap-
plications. It would take nearly a year to build the Web site and lots of
manpower, but Dassault Systemes was willing to throw whatever re-
sources were necessary behind Jean-Pierre. As the elaborate simulations
appeared on the computer screens everyone on the project became even
more excited. Imagine a dozen computer wizards solving the riddle of
the Great Pyramid by doing what they love to do, and getting paid for
it! The re-creations were perfect for the Web site, but when Mehdi saw
just how good they looked he decided to go even further. They would
hold an international press conference announcing Jean-Pierre’s great
Richard and Mehdi were used to thinking big and having the re-
sources to achieve their vision. They discussed the idea of having Jean-
Pierre onstage interacting with a life-size hologram of Hemienu so the
two architects could discuss the building of the Great Pyramid. When
the technicians were called in to create the hologram, it soon became
clear that it wouldn’t work. Some other spectacular means of present-
ing the theory was needed. Fortune smiled on Project Khufu when
Mehdi heard that La Geode, Paris’s IMAX theatre, was being equipped
with the latest equipment to project stereoscopic animations. They
quickly agreed to rent La Geode for the press conference and show a
3-D real-time stereoscopic animation of the Great Pyramid being built.
A lot of problems had to be solved to show the presentation on a three-
Men in Black: “The Triumvirate” who created the 3-D real-time simulations of the construction
of the Great Pyramid. Jean-Pierre Houdin is in the middle with Mehdi Tayoubi on the left and
Richard Breitner on the right.
story-high screen, but they believed they could pull it off. An IMAX
film costs millions of dollars to make and takes far longer than the few
months they allowed themselves. Even more difficult, they would be
using a technique more complex that the usual IMAX. This wouldn’t
be a film; it would be a digital, real-time, interactive presentation, kind
of like a video game on steroids.
As the project neared its conclusion, the team took it to La Geode
in the late evenings to try projecting it on the giant screen. Dozens of
computer techies, their girlfriends, and Dassault Systemes employees
who had heard about the project filled La Geode for all-night ses-
sions to get the bugs out of the 3-D simulation. As the time neared
for the press conference, they figured out how to project it. So much
memory was required for the animations that they would have to use
six projectors simultaneously. This wouldn’t be your ordinary press
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
As the time of the conference neared, I was asked if I could give a
five-minute talk about the theory. Five minutes is about all my French
could survive, but I agreed to speak. As the date of the conference
neared, my wife Pat and I received two tickets from Air France, and on
March 27, 2007, we were winging our way to Paris. Dassault Systemes
had made reservations for us at the Meridien Etoile, a very nice hotel.
Things were looking good for the conference.
Paris, March 28, 2007
A t six-thirty the next evening, Jean-Pierre met us in our lobby
to take us to dinner. He was clearly elated. Finally someone ap-
preciated what he had done. We were joined for dinner by a remark-
able assortment of people who were interested in the project and who
might help in the future. Two young ladies, one Egyptian and the
other Lebanese, staged cultural events in Cairo and worldwide. Very
bright, they spoke perfect English, French, and Arabic, and they might
help the company and Jean-Pierre increase their image in Egypt. Also
present was an engineer from Eiffel who built Sir Norman Foster’s
famous high bridge, the Millau Viaduct, in southern France. He told
us that to raise the bridge’s pillars he used methods similar to those the
ancient Egyptians used to raise their obelisks. Peter Spry-Leverton,
who directed a series of documentaries about Egypt, came from Eng-
land, trying to figure out if there might be a documentary in the in-
ternal ramp theory. Jean-Pierre’s father, whose insight started all this,
was sitting next to an American engineer, Craig B. Smith, who wrote
the book How the Great Pyramid Was Built and is a supporter of Jean-
The conversation was very lively, if not focused. At eight-thirty we
boarded a bus sent by Dassault Systemes to go to La Geode for a three-
hour rehearsal. I wondered why so long. When we arrived, there were
about 100 techies and their girlfriends, all twentysomethings. Jean-
Pierre came up to me, looking a bit concerned, and asked if it would
be okay if I didn’t give the speech I was brought over to deliver; the
program is running long. I was delighted to bow out. As the rehearsal
began, I realized why three hours were needed.
The Internal Ramp Goes Public
The entire presentation was to be hosted by television personality
Francois de Closets, the Walter Cronkite of France, who would have
a dialogue onstage with Jean-Pierre before the film was shown. De
Closets was the perfect choice. Eight years earlier, he hosted the tele-
vision documentary watched by Henri Houdin that started the whole
First, a stand-in for the CEO of Dassault Systemes read his introduc-
tory remarks. Their various clients were all mentioned and much was
made of the fact that architect Frank Gehry said he couldn’t have built
the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, without their software. At
fifteen minutes, the introductory remarks ran far too long, but that was
just the beginning. The CEO stand-in also read a dialogue that was
almost an hour long, and we hadn’t seen the show yet! Next the bridge
builder showed slides of his bridge and ate up another fifteen minutes.
Next Craig Smith had his fifteen minutes and spoke about “project
management” and how many people would have been needed to build
When the next speaker stepped up, it became clear why this pro-
gram was running so long. Everyone had been given fifteen minutes,
which doesn’t sound like much, but no one had done the addition.
Next Richard Breitner gave a talk on the making of the 3-D simula-
tion — the show we haven’t seen yet. Richard showed slides of how his
company’s software enables car manufacturers to simulate car crashes
and save money by not having to test-crash real cars. He is passionate
about what he does; he wanted to share everything with the audience.
By the time we saw the presentation, it was midnight and half the
audience was asleep. There was no soundtrack; Jean-Pierre narrated the
virtual reality images live and his voice was not strong. He’s an archi-
tect, not a television host. The presentation was good but it too needed
to be shortened. As is so often the case, the technical people had fallen
in love with their graphics and not thought much about the story line.
There were beautiful, amazing images of blocks being pulled through
the internal ramp, wonderful flyovers of the workers’ village, and
dramatic images of the Grand Gallery being used as a counterweight
system to haul up huge blocks of granite. It really was a triumph, but it
could have been even better with a bit of editing.
The entire program was about three hours. Jean-Pierre came up to
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
me at the end, very concerned. The press conference was a disaster
waiting to be presented on a world stage and everyone knew it. Only
radical surgery could save the program. At 1:00 a.m. we all piled on the
bus to go back to the hotel. It had been a long night and everyone was
quiet. They knew it wasn’t working.
The next morning there was a meeting at the Dassault Systemes of-
fices to discuss the press conference. When I arrived, Jean-Pierre told
me that in the longest night of his life, Mehdi had decided to cut the
program drastically. The bridge engineer was out, Craig Smith was out,
and other cuts were being be made. This was encouraging; perhaps di-
saster could be avoided.
After lunch we walked back to the office for a meeting to discuss
how to shorten the program even further. De Closets began by re-
hearsing his dialogue with Jean-Pierre. He was very good, a real pro —
animated, engaging, and mercifully brief. He coached Jean-Pierre to
answer his questions succinctly. When Jean-Pierre started talking about
“microgravimetrics,” De Closets said, “That’s a big word. Talk about
masses, density . . .” There was hope. Richard Breitner’s “Making of
the 3-D Animation” speech hadn’t been shortened. I suggested we
focus on the internal ramp. I lost the battle.
The next morning we all boarded the bus at our hotel for La Geode.
Jean-Pierre’s brother, Bernard, and their father were on the bus, as
were the usual suspects. This was the first time I had met Bernard
and he looked nothing like Jean-Pierre. He was very corporate, well
manicured, and in an immaculate suit. We arrived a bit early; it was
drizzling but lots of people were already there and there was a buzz.
We wandered around, had tea and coffee, and, for the first time, met
Michelle, Jean-Pierre’s wife! We thought she just might be a virtual
wife — it was reassuring to see she was real.
The 400-seat theater was packed. Everyone in the audience sensed
this was something special, history would be made here today, and they
were all excited to be part of it. Dassault Systemes’ CEO began. He was
handsome, charming, and it was evident that he was truly interested
in innovation. Next we had de Closets: self-assured and concise. He
introduced Jean-Pierre and they had their dialogue. It was fine but still
a bit too long. Then Richard Breitner came on the stage and we saw
the car crash, the cracks, the beams, and everything else. At this point
everyone had been listening for more than an hour.
The Internal Ramp Goes Public
De Closets returned and explained that Jean-Pierre’s work was not
just a theory, it was a hypothesis that had been tested by the virtual-
reality process. Finally we all put on our 3-D glasses and the show
began. Jean-Pierre narrated and explained that Fabien would be our
pilot. Jean-Pierre asked Fabien to take us up the Pyramid, go down,
inside, whatever we wish. The graphics are wonderful; we saw the ex-
ternal ramp, the Grand Gallery being used to haul up the huge ceiling
beams, and the internal ramp. We watched a bird fly around the work-
ers’ village and it was great fun. At the end there was uplifting music,
the bird flew, and we followed it. Lots of applause.
De Closets and Jean-Pierre discussed the possibility of testing the
theory. De Closets took questions from the audience but there were very
few. Were they exhausted? Confused? Hungry? Then, like the late-
night television commercials for the Ginsu steak knives — “But wait,
there’s more!” — Jean-Pierre wanted to show everyone a thirty-second
video that his wife had shot in Cairo from their hotel room window in
2005. It was workmen piling up sandbags to test the structural strength
of a foundation for a building they intended to build. They were basi-
cally building a pyramid with an internal ramp out of sand bags ! Then
the program was really over and there was a standing ovation for Jean-
Pierre that lasted for a full five minutes. It was very moving. I knew
how long and hard Jean-Pierre had worked; this was his day and he was
beaming. Over the next few days Jean-Pierre’s theory was be reported
in almost every major newspaper and scientific magazine around the
world. 53 The conference had been a smashing success. 54
The audience at La Geode
in Paris viewing the world
premiere of Dassault
Systemes’s 3-D anima-
tion of the building of the
The Time Machine to Hemienu
T he 3-D simulation of the Great Pyramid’s construction was
a great achievement. It presented Jean-Pierre’s internal ramp
theory and, to a limited extent, validated it. However, the
newly formed trio of Jean-Pierre, Richard, and Mehdi wanted to go
even further. They wanted something absolutely certain, “an Egyp-
tological breakthrough that no one could dispute.” They decided to
tackle the problem of the cracks in the King’s Chamber.
In a previous chapter I described how the beams cracked as the
Pyramid was being built. Until the trio focused their resources on the
cracks, this was far from established. For more than a century Egyptol-
ogists were not sure when the beams cracked. They could have cracked
centuries after the Pyramid was built, perhaps during an earthquake.
Now, using yet another Dassault Systemes program, SIMULIA, they
would act like forensic engineers to determine exactly what caused the
cracks. SIMULIA is used by many airplane and carmakers to test the
strength of their products: wings and hulls before planes fly, crash tests
for cars, and so on. They would treat the Great Pyramid like a con-
struction disaster and “back engineer” what had happened.
Their construction forensics required three steps. First, they needed
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
a geometric modeling, a re-creation in three dimensions, of the Great
Pyramid. They had used the plans drawn by the French Operation
Kheops team in 1986, which were the most detailed ever produced. 55
But a geometric model isn’t enough to simulate physical events. All it
can give you is the shape, the geometry of the construction. To re-create
an event such as cracking of the beams you also need the physical char-
acteristics of the materials used in the Pyramid. You need the weight of
the materials, their elasticity, their texture. For this Jean-Pierre met with
Francois Schlosser from Paris’s Bridges and Roads Laboratory, who was
able to supply the specific parameters of the limestone and granite used
in the Pyramid, which were entered into the computer. The virtual
Pyramid was becoming more and more detailed. The last feature needed
was functional modeling. Jean-Pierre’s theory of how the Pyramid was
built involves mechanical systems such as sleds and trolleys running on
wooden rollers. The mechanical properties of these systems — friction
generated by a block pulled on a sled, compression of a limestone rafter
as it is levered into place — all had to be entered into the computer.
Then they built the burial chamber layer by layer. When it was
complete, they built the relieving chambers, and finally the uppermost
limestone blocks were piled on top of the Pyramid. The engineers ex-
pected that as the Pyramid grew the load would be too great for the
beams and they would crack. But as they piled more and more blocks
on top, the beams held without cracking. Finally the virtual capstone
was placed on the Pyramid and still no cracks. One of the computer en-
gineers working on the project telephoned. “Jean-Pierre, we are unable
to break these beams; there is no load on the beams, just on the rafters.”
Of course, this is exactly what Hemienu had planned. The rafters on
top were intended to distribute the load through the body of the Pyra-
mid and the computer simulation confirmed that’s just what they were
doing. The team even simulated a mini earthquake, but still no cracks.
And yet the real beams had cracked — and there had to be a reason.
Jean-Pierre went back to study the French team’s detailed plans of the
Pyramid to look for something wrong. He discovered that the rafters
had slipped just a tiny bit, just twelve millimeters on the north sides,
so that the inverted V-shaped roof pressed on the limestone blocks be-
neath them, rather than distributing the forces into the body of the
Pyramid. This could have transmitted pressure to the beams.
The engineers went back to their simulations, now entering the
The Time Machine to Hemienu
slight slippage of the rafters. Sure enough they saw considerable pres-
sure on the beams, but no cracks. There had to be something else, so
Jean-Pierre went back to the plans. Then he noticed that the south
wall of the burial chamber had settled and was three centimeters lower
than the north wall. The computer engineers now added the fact that
the south wall was slightly lower than the north and ran the simulation
again. First they completed the King’s Chamber and then went on to
build the relieving chambers one at a time. The simulation showed in-
creasing pressure on the beams, but still no cracks. The Pyramid grew
course by course on their computer. When it reached a height of about
375 feet, the beams in the King’s Chamber cracked. It wasn’t just the
weight of the Pyramid above that did it; it was a combination of factors.
The south wall settled ever so slightly — enough to cause the rafters to
shift. This shift transmitted forces downward onto the beams of the
ceiling. The granite beams, pinned asymmetrically under the load, had
only one way to free the pressure: they couldn’t bend, so they broke.
From the simulation we now know that the ceiling cracked during the
construction of the Pyramid, about three years after the King’s Cham-
ber was completed.
The Dassault Systemes team didn’t stop when the ceiling beams
cracked. They kept building the Pyramid on the computer, piling more
blocks on top. When the Pyramid reached about 420 feet in height
there was enough weight above to crack the ceiling beams in the first
relieving chamber. At about 450 feet, the ceiling in the second reliev-
Computer simulation of the
cracks in the King’s Chamber
demonstrated that the Pyramid
cracked as it was being built.
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The Secret of the Great Pyramid
ing chamber cracked. At this point there was only another thirty feet or
so to the top of the Pyramid, not enough weight to cause more cracks
and disaster was averted. The team had conclusively demonstrated not
only the cause of the cracks, but when they occurred, the first time
such high-powered simulation software has been applied to a building
constructed in the distant past.
It was a wonderful discovery — an Egyptological breakthrough that
was certain — but something bothered Jean-Pierre. What could cause
the south wall to settle soon after the King’s Chamber was completed?
Why hadn’t the other walls settled? With his encyclopedic knowledge
of the Pyramid’s year-by-year construction, Jean-Pierre came up with
the answer. Soon after the completion of the burial chamber, the ex-
ternal ramp was dismantled — the external ramp that had been leaning
on the south side of the Pyramid. When this tremendous mass was re-
moved from the south face, the burial chamber’s south wall settled just
a few centimeters, but enough to have great consequences.
The Search for the
T he Dassault Systemes press conference thrust Jean-Pierre’s
theory into the spotlight and opened it up for criticism. News-
paper and magazine reporters were calling pyramid experts
for their opinions. Many were noncommittal; they simply didn’t have
enough details to judge. The good news was that none of the experts
found any serious flaws in the theory. The internal ramp was a real
possibility, but the details had to be presented somewhere. I published a
streamlined account of the theory in Archaeology magazine 56 to see what
the reaction would be. There was quite a bit of interest, and again none
of the experts came up with a serious flaw in the theory. The theory
was moving into the mainstream, people were talking about it, refer-
ring to it in publications, but it clearly needed some solid evidence.
Much ofJean-Pierre’s evidence for the internal ramp had come from
computer reconstructions or computer printouts. The notch was the
only “real world” support for the theory and that was far from conclu-
sive. Jean-Pierre needed solid, tangible evidence for an internal ramp to
take his theory from the realm of the “possible” to the probable. The
search for physical evidence began.
In April of 2008, we had a chance to add to the physical evidence
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
for the internal ramp theory. Every year I guide a group of Egyptology
enthusiasts through Egypt. Our first day is spent on the Giza Plateau
visiting the pyramids, and inevitably ends with a discussion of how the
Great Pyramid was built. Thanks to Jean-Pierre, my description of the
Pyramid’s construction has changed considerably in recent years and now
includes a detailed discussion of the internal ramp theory. I point to the
notch 275 feet above us and present the possibility that it is the remnant
of one of the corners left open so the blocks could make turns up the
internal ramp. I tell the group that the French team saw a desert fox dis-
appear into the notch, and also they said that the notch seemed to them
to be a perfect square. Someone in the group always says, “Wouldn’t it be
great to climb up there and see what it really looks like?”
Of course it would, but you can’t just climb the Pyramid. It is for-
bidden. In the old days, when things were much more relaxed, I used
to regularly climb to the top of the Great Pyramid on New Year’s Eve
with my students. Since the 1980s, this has all changed and climbing
is carefully regulated. In the 1990s, I was given permission to climb to
the top a few times for television documentaries, but I hadn’t been up
the Pyramid in nearly ten years. Now I didn’t want to climb to the top,
just to the notch.
When my tour group left Cairo for home, I stayed behind to help
National Geographic film a documentary about theories of how the Great
Pyramid was built. Filming in Egypt involves getting all kinds of per-
missions and access to closed sites, and I suggested that they request
permission for me to climb the Pyramid, not to the top, but just to the
notch. Late in the afternoon of April 25, 2008, I began climbing.
There are traditional routes up the Pyramid, where the blocks are
not too large and the stone is stable. In some areas the blocks are very
big and difficult to get up, and in other areas the stone is crumbly. Un-
fortunately, the northeast corner, where the notch is, consists of both
large and crumbly blocks. When I learned I would be able to climb, I
spent several hours looking for the best route up. It was possible, but
it would be difficult and slow going. To make matters even more in-
teresting, on the day I was to visit the notch, the little thermometer
attached to my bag was reading 111 degrees Fahrenheit. It would be a
As I set out to finally see the notch, my pockets contained a tape
measure (to confirm the French team’s measurement), a digital camera
The Search for the Internal Ramp
(to take pictures for Jean-Pierre to analyze), and a flashlight (to shine
in the crevice where the fox disappeared). As I began slowly picking
my way up the first courses of blocks, the footholds were quite narrow
and covered with loose rocks, so it was slow going. After about five
minutes of very slow progress, the quality of stone got much better and
the climb changed from nerve-racking to positively enjoyable. After
about fifteen minutes I could see the notch looming just a few courses
above me. Thirty seconds later I was standing in the famous notch.
Jean-Pierre and I had often looked at aerial photos of the notch,
trying to make out details that might indicate a ramp. We had endless
conversations about the French report and what it might mean for the
theory. Now that I was actually standing in the notch, I was disap-
pointed. It wasn’t what I expected. It was much larger. From what the
French had told Jean-Pierre, I had imagined a rather regular seven-foot
six-inch square floor. Now that I was there, I couldn’t imagine what
they were talking about. I was standing on a very irregular platform
twice that size.
I didn’t have time to ponder the discrepancy between what my
eyes were telling me and what the French had reported. It was hot and
I couldn’t stay on the Pyramid too long, so I quickly ran through the
mental list of my three tasks, figuring out what to do first. The obvi-
ous order was to photograph first while I had the light, measure second,
again with the light, and third shine the flashlight into the crevice, since
that didn’t require light. As I looked around me, it became obvious that
the third task wasn’t going to be what I had imagined either. At the back
of the notch was a crevice about eighteen inches wide and five feet high.
Behind it was an area that looked like a small room — large enough for a
hundred desert foxes ! I was eager to slip through the crevice, but decided
to photograph the notch first before the light faded.
With my digital camera I took the photos I thought Jean-Pierre
would want, trying to show the masonry, the irregular floor, and the
position of the crevice. The problem was that I couldn’t step back far
enough to give him a real perspective. I really needed to be hovering in
space beyond the notch so I could get it all in one photo. Detail shots
would have to do. As soon as the photos were taken, I was on my hands
and knees measuring.
The notch was so irregular, with blocks jutting out in all directions,
that it wasn’t clear which dimensions to measure. I pretended it was a
The notch, high on the Pyramid,
may be the remnant of a corner
left open to turn blocks as they
moved up the internal ramp.
The Search for the Internal Ramp
rectangle and took four measurements. It was quick and dirty, but it
was all I had time for. It was time to go through the crevice.
I was greeted by graffiti painted
in black on one of the blocks. This
wasn’t virgin territory. Still, it was
interesting, very interesting. I was
standing inside a fairly large space.
Was this the seven-foot six-inch
square the French had talked about?
No, it was too large and also ir-
regular. It was as if a cave had been
formed by stacking up large blocks
on top of each other, forming a roof
more than eight feet high. It cer-
tainly wasn’t the internal ramp, but
what was such a large space doing
so high up on the Pyramid?
I quickly photographed “the
cave.” The crevice let in enough
sunlight that I was sure the photos
would come out. As I was mea-
suring the cave for Jean-Pierre, I
noticed a second crevice at floor
level inside the cave. It was formed
by two blocks not being set right
next to each other, leaving a space
of about twelve inches. But the little crevice extended well beyond the
first two blocks, forming a small tunnel that ran for at least fifteen feet.
I couldn’t squeeze inside, so I took a few photos and started my descent.
Going down is a lot easier than going up. It’s the difference between
hauling yourself up three- and four-foot blocks of stone and letting
yourself down those blocks. With a relaxed trip downward, I started
to evaluate the notch and how it fit in with Jean-Pierre ’s theory. I was
a bit disappointed. The fantasy was that I would find a small crevice
at floor level, shine my flashlight through, and see what looked like a
ramp. Jean-Pierre is proven right, gets to take his walk up the ramp,
and is acclaimed by the world as a genius. Fade to black. I knew this
was unlikely, but that was the ideal scenario.
A crevice in the back of the notch led to
a large open space inside the pyramid.
The Search for the Internal Ramp
On a more realistic level, I had expected to find a more finished,
regular area, suggesting it had been constructed for a purpose. To
my untrained eye I couldn’t see much evidence of this. It just looked
like blocks piled on top of blocks in the course of the Pyramid’s
construction. On the other hand, the notch was quite large, large
enough to hold a crane. And what was that large space behind the
crevice? Was it just a cavity left in the course of building the Pyra-
mid to save a few blocks of stone? Are there other undetected cavi-
ties like it throughout the Pyramid? Do the notch and the space have
a common cause? It seemed unlikely that the space behind the notch
was just a coincidence. These were my questions as I lowered myself
down the Pyramid. Near the bottom I once again had to concen-
trate on what I was doing. The ledges were getting narrower and the
As I slowly picked my route down I could see Jean-Pierre waiting
for me fifty feet below. Soon I was answering his questions as best I
could. While I was a bit disappointed, or at least confused, by what
I had found, he seemed elated. It all seemed to fit in with his theory.
I was dying for a cold bottle of water and left a bit precipitously. We
agreed we would download my pictures onto his computer at the hotel
so he could do the analysis.
At the hotel that night we downloaded the photos from my digi-
tal camera onto Jean-Pierre ’s laptop. As the images popped up on the
screen, Jean-Pierre pointed out details that my nonarchitect’s brain had
missed. “Doesn’t that look like rough corbelling?” “See that block? It
had to have been pushed into position from behind.” It all made good
internal ramp sense to Jean-Pierre — even the roughness of the notch
and the cave behind it. But he didn’t want to say more. He was already
planning a computer model of the notch and cave that would reveal
more about how the cave had been constructed and the kinds of blocks
that were now missing in the notch. It would take months before he
could say anything for certain, but the search for evidence for the inter-
nal ramp was off to a good start.
In the quest for evidence, Jean-Pierre began studying hundreds
of photos of the Pyramid, looking for clues to its construction. As he
looked at one of the Sphinx from the 1880s with the Great Pyramid in
the background, he couldn’t believe what he saw — the internal ramp!
At least that’s what it looks like. Going across the Pyramid is a straight
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
line at approximately an 8 percent slope. This, of course, doesn’t make
any sense. The ramp should be about ten feet inside the surface of the
Pyramid; there is no reason to expect faint traces of it on the outside,
although these could be from the parallel gangway down which the
haulers descended. This is not the only photo that shows this phenom-
enon. A more recent photo also shows very faint, ghostly traces of what
looks like two courses of the ramp. This kind of evidence is intriguing,
but isn’t very strong. What is really needed is an actual internal ramp,
not faint traces of one.
The closest thing to an ancient Egyptian internal ramp is not in a
pyramid, but in a temple at Dendera, 500 miles south of Giza. Built
2,000 years after the Great Pyramid, the temple was constructed when
Greeks were ruling Egypt, but the same building technique of placing
blocks of stone upon blocks of stone was still in use. One of the most
beautiful temples in all of Egypt, Dendera was dedicated to the god-
dess Hathor, mistress of love and music. Each column in the temple is
surmounted by the head of the goddess, a beautiful woman with the
A recent photo also shows traces of what could be the internal ramp.
The Search for the Internal Ramp
ears of a cow. (Cows in ancient Egypt were associated with nurturing,
mother’s milk, and security.)
Egyptian temples were vast, dark enclosed structures. The common
person was never supposed to enter into the sacred precinct of the god;
that was the realm of the priests. Each day, within the temple’s many
rooms, priests made offerings of food and drink to Hathor. Once a year,
on New Year’s Day, there was a solemn procession to the roof of the
temple, where shaven-headed priests greeted the sun and gave thanks
for its bounty. The route those priests took is still inside the temple, and
it is an internal ramp. Unlike Hemienu’s internal ramp, this one wasn’t
used for construction. This ramp was for processions and is narrower
than the one Hemienu built inside the Great Pyramid, but it shows
that the vocabulary of ancient Egyptian architecture included the in-
ternal ramp, even 2,000 years later than the Great Pyramid. Carved
on both walls are depictions of priests carrying boxes containing the
linens, perfumes, and other offerings they will present to Re, the sun
god. Fortunately, the processional ramp at Dendera is not the only one
The Temple of Dendera was dedicated to Hathor, goddess of love and music.
111 11 1 . . "i i i , tV
Internal ramp used by priests of Dendera to ascend to the temple roof for New Year rituals.
The Search for the Internal Ramp
in Egypt. There is another, much closer to the Great Pyramid, both in
space and time.
When Jean-Pierre and I had our meeting with Dieter Arnold at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just before we left, Dieter casu-
ally mentioned that in an earlier excavation at Abu Gurob they found
what looked like an internal ramp, but no one knew what to make of
it. Abu Gurob is just a few miles from the Great Pyramid and its main
feature is a sun temple built by King Ni-Userre of the 5th Dynasty.
The 4th Dynasty pyramids of Giza marked the end of huge pyramids.
Egypt would never again build anything as large as the Great Pyra-
mid. Later pharaohs built smaller pyramids, and in the 5th Dynasty it
was the fashion to construct a small pyramid and also a temple dedi-
cated to the sun. Ni-Userre’s sun temple was built about 100 years
after the Great Pyramid and provides physical evidence for internal
The sun temple was basically a very large base on which an obelisk
was erected. Obelisks, reaching upward to the sky, were associated with
the sun and were made from a single piece of granite. (America’s Wash-
ington Monument is based on the Egyptian obelisk, but it is built of
thousands of blocks of stone.) Ni-Userre’s temple was excavated almost
exactly 100 years ago by the renowned German Egyptologist Ludwig
Borchardt. He published a diagram of the sun temple and it shows what
appears to be an internal ramp. 57 If the drawing is accurate, this would
Ludwig Borchardt’s diagram of an internal ramp inside a sun temple at Abu Gurob.
Remains of a 4,000-year-old internal ramp at Abu Gurob.
The Search for the Internal Ramp
indeed be an important bit of evidence — an internal ramp constructed
soon after the construction of the Great Pyramid.
The site of Abu Gurob is reached through a lovely grove of palm
trees. Where the palm trees end, the desert begins, and there on a hill
is the sun temple. My first glance was disappointing. The sun temple
is terribly ruined and clearly Borchardt’s diagram was his reconstruc-
tion of what once was there, not what he saw. But sure enough, when
I walked around a bit I could see that there had been an internal ramp
and it was still recognizable. The ceiling was gone, but you can still
walk up the path that priests had once taken to make their offerings,
turn right, and continue up toward the top. Little more than a century
after the Great Pyramid had been built, an unnamed Egyptian architect
had paid homage to Hemienu’s creation.
F inding the small, battered ramp inside the ruined temple was
encouraging, but not the kind of evidence we really needed. In a
perfect world, the best evidence would be to find the ramp inside
the Pyramid itself. If we were going to do this, we knew it would have
to be done nondestructively. There could be no moving of blocks of
stone on the Pyramid. Our best bet was thermal photography. Thermal
photography detects heat differentials. If the ramp really is inside the
Pyramid, then the air inside the ramp would be cooler than the stones
surrounding it. With a very good thermal camera, we might be able
to do a kind of X-ray of the Pyramid and photograph the cool ramp
inside. Thermal photography has been used before in archaeology to
determine the internal structure of ancient buildings. We just needed
permission to try it on the Great Pyramid.
To work on the antiquities of Egypt, you need formal permission
from the Supreme Council of Antiquities. You must submit a descrip-
tion of what you want to do, the resumes of the team members, and the
time period you will need to complete the project. The team members
must have both the skills and the credentials to work on the project. It
all sounds relatively simple, but soon we found out it wasn’t so easy.
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
There are two different kinds of permissions — excavations and sur-
veys. Excavations involve moving earth and sand and is the more diffi-
cult of the two permissions to obtain. Surveys move nothing and usually
consist of mapping a monument such as a tomb or temple and copying
the inscriptions on its walls. Our project was a survey; we didn’t want
to move any blocks, drill any holes, or move any sand. We just wanted
to photograph the Pyramid with a thermal camera or a similar device
to detect whether there really was a mile-long ramp inside.
When we wrote our proposal we knew that Jean-Pierre couldn’t
be the project director. The Supreme Council of Antiquities requires
a university affiliation for project directors and Jean-Pierre was an ar-
chitect, not a university professor. To ensure that our project would be
approved we asked Dieter Arnold to serve as director. Well respected
and the author of the most authoritative book on building in ancient
Egypt, he had excavated pyramids for thirty years. Our proposal ex-
plained exactly what we wanted to do and what we hoped to find. We
had everything necessary for the project in place, listed the compa-
nies supplying all the equipment, and explained that the entire project
could be completed in less than a week, and we emphasized the non-
destructive nature of our study. With high hopes we sent the proposal
to Dr. Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of
Hawass is the gray-haired, enthusiastic Egyptian Egyptologist who
is in practically every television documentary ever produced about an-
cient Egypt. Nothing is approved without him, and for years I have
worked with him on good terms. I was optimistic about our approval,
but it was not to be. We were rejected because Dieter Arnold already
had one concession to excavate, at Dashur, and it was one per customer.
The Supreme Council wanted to make sure that the director was prop-
erly attending to his project; and no one could be in two places at the
same time. This concern went back to the early days of Egyptian ar-
chaeology when the Antiquities Service was under the control of the
French and its director, August Mariette, conducted as many as a dozen
excavations at the same time! Who knows what antiquities were stolen
by his workmen when he was off supervising other excavations hun-
dreds of miles away.
We had Plan B. Earlier, Jean-Pierre had discussed the internal ramp
theory with Dr. Rainer Stadelmann, a member of the German Archae-
ological Institute who had also written extensively about pyramids.
Like Arnold, he too thought it was an “interesting” possibility. We had
thought that if for any reason Dieter Arnold didn’t want to be the proj-
ect director, then we would ask Stadelmann. But he too had his own
ongoing excavation in Egypt, so we were never able to ask him. We
were getting desperate and moved on to Plan C.
I was a university professor and wasn’t excavating. Could I be proj-
ect director? The truth was that the reason I wasn’t excavating is that I
have no idea how to excavate. Dirt archaeology is a very different skill
from mummy studies. I haven’t been trained to lay down grids, survey
an excavation site, dig trial trenches, and conserve what I might find.
Still, the project was only a survey, and we had other experts on the
team. It was worth a try.
Dr. Hawass’s assistant e-mailed that this plan wouldn’t work either.
While Zahi had high praise for my work, he felt my expertise was “the
wrong flavor.” I was disappointed, but understood the position. Why
should a mummy person be supervising a pyramid project? We were
running out of plans when we came up with another possibility. Why
couldn’t Zahi himself be project director? Before becoming secretary-
general, Dr. Hawass had been director of the Giza Plateau. He is an
expert on pyramids, loved to be around them, and thought our theory
was interesting, though he never said he believed it. If we were right
about the ramp, this project would get the attention of the world and
television documentaries were inevitable. Zahi is excellent on televi-
sion and could also be the spokesman for the project. Of course, this
was too perfect to be true. Zahi declined; this was not his project and
he didn’t want to do it; he was busy working on his own research. It
may also be that Hawass was being polite and didn’t believe the man in
black’s theory. Perhaps he needs more evidence.
I t may well be that before we receive permission we have to accumu-
late even more evidence, build an even stronger case for the inter-
nal ramp. Jean-Pierre’s analysis of the notch and the “room” behind it
may add something. Help may also come from new technology on the
horizon. A simple infrared camera enabling you to snap a picture of
The Secret of the Great Pyramid
a building and then see the rooms inside may be on the market soon.
Such a camera could help add considerably to the evidence.
As we continue to gather evidence, I am reminded of Scully and
Mulder in the old X-Files TV series. We just need a bit more evidence
to prove the case before the authorities will listen. Our advantage over
the X-Files is that the end is in sight. Either the ramp is inside the Pyra-
mid or it isn’t. The truth is out there and I am certain we will know it
Appendix I: The Search for Imhotep
Almost certainly, Imhotep would have been rewarded by Zoser with
a great tomb, but in spite of extensive searches by Egyptologists, that
tomb has not yet been found. There is considerable evidence that he
was buried at Saqqara, near the pharaoh he served so well. We know
from ancient writings that two thousand years after his death, when
he was worshipped as the god of healing, Imhotep’s tomb was a pil-
grimage site, like Lourdes in France, visited by the sick in search of
miraculous cures. Pilgrims came from all over Egypt — and when they
finally reached Saqqara they were greeted by vendors selling mummi-
fied ibises. The ibis was sacred to Imhotep, so the idea was that if you
bought one of these birds and left it as an offering at Imhotep’s tomb,
he would be pleased and cure you.
The mummified ibis trade was big business and thousands of these
birds were raised in captivity, sacrificed, mummified, wrapped, and
then placed in clay pots to be sold to the pilgrims. Because the mum-
mies were wrapped and in pots, the hopeful traveler was buying a “pig
in a poke.” He had no idea what was inside the offering he had just
purchased, and was often cheated. When we study mummies we rarely
unwrap them — X-rays and CAT scans are nondestructive and quite re-
vealing. Often, beautiful wrappings conceal just a bundle of rags and
a few random animal bones, but no ibis. Hor, the priest in charge of
the animal offerings at Saqqara, complained of the fraud. He wanted
“a god in every pot!” Regardless of whether the pots contained real or
fake mummies, they provided clues that sent Egyptologists searching
for decades for the tomb of the architect of the first pyramid.
I n 1966, Walter B. Emery, a well-known British archaeologist, began
his search for Imhotep. Spotting a trail of thousands of broken pot-
sherds at Saqqara, Emery thought they might have been broken by pil-
grims along their route to Imhotep’s tomb. During his excavations he
found several important tombs of the 3rd Dynasty, the right period
for Imhotep. In one tomb he even found 500 pots containing ibises,
but still no Imhotep. Emery’s next discovery was the entrance to the
now-famous animal-mummy galleries. The galleries run for miles be-
neath the sands of Saqqara, and carved into the walls of the tunnels are
niches, each one holding a clay pot. The first gallery Emery excavated
held tens of thousands of mummified ibises, convincing him that he
was on the trail of Imhotep. Many were elaborately wrapped with ap-
plique decorations sewn onto the outer wrappings. Pressing on, Emery
found a gallery of mummified baboons, each wrapped and placed in a
coffin that rested inside a niche carved into the soft limestone. Both the
ibis and baboon were forms of the god Toth, who was associated with
Emery excavated for six seasons, discovering miles of tunnels con-
taining more than a million mummified animals. Within the rubble
of some galleries were plaster models of various human body parts —
hands, legs, feet — undoubtedly left by pilgrims with afflictions of those
members, hoping to be healed. In the 1969—70 season, he discovered
his first written confirmation connecting Imhotep with the animal
galleries. In one gallery Emery discovered an ink inscription that read:
“May Imhotep, the great son of Ptah the great god and the good god
who rests here, give life to Petenfertem . . .” All indications were that
Emery was nearing his goal. He hoped that if he followed the galleries
to their end, he would find Imhotep’s tomb, but it was not an easy ex-
cavation. Some galleries were totally blocked with thousands of mum-
mified birds that had been stacked up when wall space for niches had
run out. Once the roof collapsed as they excavated and had to be shored
up. In the end, Emery suffered a fatal stroke while working at Saqqara
and never found Imhotep. For decades no one resumed Emery’s work,
but currently several excavation teams at Saqqara are hoping to find the
architect of the first pyramid in history.
A Polish expedition working near the Step Pyramid has found blue-
green ceramic tiles similar to those used in Zoser’s burial chamber, and
the team is hoping that Imhotep may have used these tiles for his tomb.
In 2008, a Scottish team using ground penetrating radar at Saqqara
found a very large tomb beneath the sand. The tomb has not yet been
excavated, but they say it is large enough to be Imhotep’s. The search
for Imhotep’s tomb may be nearing an end.
Appendix II: The Lost Pyramid
One might wonder how a pyramid can be lost, but that’s what hap-
pened just a few hundred yards from the Step Pyramid. In 1951,
Egyptian Egyptologist Zakariah Goneim discovered the remains of
a pyramid that was never completed. 58 Unlike Zoser’s, which had six
steps, it was apparently intended to have seven. Almost totally covered
in sand, its excavation took several years and yielded much informa-
tion about the early days of pyramid construction. One graffito on the
pyramid’s enclosure wall reads “Imhotep,” so it is quite possible that
Imhotep outlived Zoser and designed a second pyramid. During the
1953-54 season, the entrance was found on the north side, with the
door still sealed, indicating that although the pyramid was unfinished,
the pharaoh evidently had been buried inside. There was tremendous
excitement; an intact royal burial of the Old Kingdom had been found.
To make it even better, fragmentary inscriptions indicated the king was
Horus-Sekhem-Khet, a little-known pharaoh who was about to roar
back into history.
Goneim opened the door and found a descending corridor framed
by an arch — so much for the Romans inventing the arch! At the bottom
of the corridor, huge limestone blocks and rubble still blocked the en-
trance to the burial chamber. Carefully removing the debris, Goneim
found gold jewelry on the corridor floor: twenty-one gold bracelets,
388 hollow beads, and the remains of a wooden magical wand covered
in gold. Why had such a treasure been left on the floor? Perhaps to ap-
pease tomb robbers, in the hope that after clearing the corridor they
would find the jewelry, be satisfied, and leave. It wasn’t necessary: they
never got that far, and the door to the burial chamber was still intact
when Goneim reached it. It must have occurred to Goneim that his
discovery could be the next Tutankhamen. If there was gold jewelry on
the floor outside the burial chamber, what was inside? Various officials
and news media were told of the great discovery, and on the day of the
opening, the corridor was packed with reporters.
The door was carefully taken down and Goneim peered in. Every-
one was shocked. The burial chamber was virtually empty! There were
no treasures as in Tutankhamen’s tomb — no furniture, no boxes with
clothing, no statues or vases, just a translucent alabaster sarcophagus.
Once the disappointment subsided, everyone’s attention turned to the
sarcophagus. It was still sealed and on the lid were plant remains, per-
haps incense used in a burial ritual. The sarcophagus had obviously not
been touched since it was placed beneath the pyramid more than 4,500
years ago, so once again spirits rose. The intact mummy of an Old
Kingdom pharaoh was still a fabulous discovery.
It took several hours of hard work to open the sarcophagus, as its
five-ton sliding side panel had to be lifted. Again Goneim peered in;
again disappointment. The sarcophagus was empty; it had never been
used. Where was Horus-Sekhem-Khet? The pyramid was a decoy, in-
tended to throw thieves off the trail of the pharaoh’s true burial. If this
is correct, it may explain why the pyramid was never plundered. Rob-
bers frequently obtained inside information from tomb builders. If they
did in this case, they would have known the unfinished pyramid of
Horus-Sekhem-Khet was a dud, not worthy of robbing.
Appendix III: The Case of the Missing Queen
One of the great treasures in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is the funer-
ary furniture and jewelry of Queen Hetepheres. Elegant furniture with
beautiful gold bands of hieroglyphs are the main attraction, but there
are also spectacular silver bracelets inlaid with turquoise butterflies,
whose discovery came about under unique circumstances. Found in
1925, when Tutankhamen’s tomb was being excavated, Hetepheres’s
tomb was another intact royal tomb with (hopefully) the same poten-
tial for treasures.
Unlike Howard Carter’s discovery, which was the result of hard
work and knowing what to look for, Hetepheres’s tomb was found by
pure luck. A photographer for the Harvard— Boston Museum team ex-
cavating at Giza was photographing the site when one of the legs of
his tripod seemed to go through the bedrock on which it rested. Care-
ful examination revealed that the tripod leg had actually gone through
ancient plaster that was covering a deep shaft. As the rubble filling the
shaft was removed, it became clear that there would be a tomb at the
bottom. Thirty feet down, the excavators uncovered a sealed wall;
behind it would hopefully be something rivaling Tutankhamen’s trea-
When the wall was taken down, a small room was revealed with the
remains of ancient furniture, an alabaster sarcophagus, and a few other
objects. Not quite Tutankhamen, but still some wonderful things.
The inscriptions on the furniture showed that this was the burial site
of Queen Hetepheres, the wife of Sneferu and the mother of Khufu,
builder of the Great Pyramid. It seems as if Khufu wanted his mother
buried close to him, so he had her tomb dug near the base of his Pyra-
mid. The one piece that didn’t fit was the size of the tomb; it was rather
modest for such an important queen. Then things became even more
Now all the excavators had to do was remove the lid of the alabaster
sarcophagus in the tomb and they would become the first people in
more than four thousand years to gaze on the face of Queen Hete-
pheres. First the furniture had to be removed to create enough space to
work on the sarcophagus. This was extremely difficult as the wood had
deteriorated and everything had to be photographed and mapped in
place first so that if it crumbled to dust it could be recreated in modern
materials. Finally the time to remove the sarcophagus lid arrived and
an imposing group of officials was invited to the opening.
One by one the august visitors were roped into an armchair and
lowered into the tomb. The master of ceremonies was George Andrew
Reisner, field director of the expedition. Reisner had asked the expedi-
tion’s artist, Joseph Lindon Smith, to be present. He later published an
account of the surprising events of that day.
Wheeler and Dunham were at either side of the sarcophagus, to
operate two short projectors, which were to serve as handles for
lifting the lid. Fitted under the handles was a frame of wooden
beams resting on the jack screws. Reisner sat on a small box,
and I was next to him, kneeling, and closest to the sarcophagus.
In a breathless silence, the lid began to be lifted. When it was
sufficiently raised for me to peer inside, I saw to my dismay that
the queen was not there — the sarcophagus was Empty! Turning
to Reisner, I said in a voice louder than I had intended, “George,
she’s a dud!” Whereupon the minister of Public Works asked,
“What is a Dud?” Reisner rose from his box and said, “Gentle-
men, I regret Queen Hetepheres is not receiving,” and added,
“Mrs. Reisner will serve refreshments at the camp .” 59
To make things even more puzzling, one of the objects in the tomb
was a beautiful chest with four compartments, carved out of a single
block of alabaster. It contained the internal organs of Queen Hete-
pheres that had been removed at the time of mummification. The ab-
sence of the queen’s mummy led to all kinds of speculation. Reisner’s
theory was that the queen’s original tomb was at Dashur, near her hus-
band Sneferu’s pyramid. Unfortunately her tomb was partially robbed
during the reign of her son, Khufu. By the time officials discovered that
the tomb had been plundered, the body was missing. (Tomb robbers
frequently removed the body to unwrap it later in safety, hoping to find
jewelry.) Rather than upset the pharaoh with news that his mother’s
body was missing, the officials resealed the sarcophagus and told the
king that although some objects had been looted from the tomb, her
body was intact. To prevent further robbery of the tomb, Khufu rebur-
ied what he thought was his mother’s body, along with what remained
of her funerary equipment, near his Pyramid on the Giza Plateau.
Reisner’s theory is highly speculative and was perhaps influenced
by his addiction to mystery novels. He read hundreds and hundreds of
them, which were later donated to Harvard’s Widener Library. Each
one has Reisner’s evaluation on the front endpaper. He graded them
like students’ papers — many have B+ and the really bad got a C. No
tomb for Hetepheres has ever been found at Dashur, so we really don’t
know if there was a robbery and reburial. It could be that like her hus-
band, Sneferu, Hetepheres had a southern and northern burial and her
second tomb containing her mummy is still to be found.
Appendix IV: Making Khufu’s Sarcophagus
Lying in a granite quarry at Aswan is a 3,000-year-old obelisk that
holds the answer to what tools were used to fashion Khufu’s sarcopha-
gus. The obelisk cracked while it was being quarried and was aban-
doned, still attached to the quarry on two sides. Weighing in at around
1,000 tons — as much as two jumbo jets — the obelisk may be the largest
single block of stone ever quarried. Because it is unfinished, we can
clearly see the techniques used to free it from the quarry.
There are no chisel marks on the obelisk, but on the sides where it is
free from the quarry we can see depressions as if a huge ice-cream scoop
had removed balls of granite to shape the obelisk. What tool could have
done this? Nothing as sophisticated as Petrie imagined. Throughout
the quarry are hundreds of black stones the size of cantaloupes. These
are the tools that pounded the obelisk out of the quarry, and also shaped
the sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber that so impressed Petrie. The
black rocks are dolerite, which is even harder than granite. They were
repeatedly dropped on the edges of the obelisk, causing the depressions.
This is a labor-intensive process, involving thousands and thousands of
man-hours to repeatedly drop the pounders to chip away the granite a
tiny bit at a time; a task possibly done by prisoners sentenced to hard
labor in the quarry. Petrie didn’t realize that unlimited man-hours can
take the place of fine tools. The techniques that were used to quarry
the obelisk were basically the same as those needed to free the block
from which Khufu’ s sarcophagus was fashioned.
In a remarkable series of experiments, Denys Stocks, an expert in an-
cient stoneworking technology, re-created the tools used by Hemienu’s
workers and demonstrated how Khufu ’s sarcophagus was fashioned. 60
Once the rough block of granite was pounded out of the quarry, the
ends were cut with giant copper saws much like old-fashioned two-
man saws. The copper saws, however, were simple rectangular sheets
of copper with no teeth. Sand, used as an abrasive, was placed between
the blade and the future sarcophagus and two men would move the saw
back and forth, wearing a groove into the granite block. It was a slow,
laborious process, but eventually the end of the block was sawn off.
Hollowing out the block was more complicated.
Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings show craftsmen using bow drills —
something very much like the bow from a bow and arrow. When the
bow was moved back and forth horizontally, the string rotated a tu-
bular copper bit. With sand as an abrasive, a circular hole was slowly
worn into the granite. Stocks ’s experiments showed that to drill just six
centimeters into granite by this method took sixty man-hours. More
than 100 such holes were drilled into the granite and the cores that
were left were knocked out with chisels. By doing rather than theoriz-
ing, Stocks could calculate the man-hours needed to create Khufu’s
sarcophagus — 28,000 man-hours! 61 This is a figure I always keep in
mind when I think about all the granite beams and blocks used for the
burial chamber in the Great Pyramid.
Appendix V: The Pyramid’s Angle
Before a single block was put in place, the angle of the pyramid had to
be determined. The Egyptians did not think in terms of degrees; they
never divided the circle into 360 degrees as we do. Rather, their unit for
angles was called the seked. Their unit of length was the cubit, roughly the
distance from elbow to the end of the middle finger. This was, of course,
standardized. Their measuring rod, the cubit stick, was divided into seven
palms, and each palm into four fingers, similar to the way we divide a
yardstick into feet and inches. When Egyptian architects were consider-
ing angles, they thought in terms of how
many cubits you built outward for each
cubit of height. For example, if the pyra-
mid rises one cubit and you build out one
cubit, you will have a 45-degree angle.
The ratio doesn’t have to be in terms
of cubits; we could also think in terms
of palms. So if you built upward one
cubit but out ten palms, you would have
a seked of ten, which is the same as our
All pyramids may look pretty much alike to the layman, but they
are not. At Meidum, the first attempt at the true pyramid, the exterior
angle is 52 degrees. The Bent Pyramid begins at 54 degrees, but toward
the top it changes to 43 degrees. The Red Pyramid is 43 degrees and
the Great Pyramid is 52 degrees. These pyramids all had white casing
stones that were crucial to ensuring that the pyramids’ angles were
constant throughout construction.
The thousands of casing stones needed for the Great Pyramid would
have been finished at the quarry with their 52-degree angles before
transportation to the site. When the angle is carved on the rough block,
the weight is reduced by several hundred pounds. By completing the
blocks in the quarry rather than shipping them in rough form to the
construction site, you save the shipping and hauling of thousands of
tons of what will eventually be rubble.
Herodotus was told that the Pyramid was completed from the top
down — that the casing stones were put on the surface of the Pyramid
while still in their rectangular shape and then, when all were in place,
the blocks were given their 52-degree angle by carving from top to
bottom. The economic reason mentioned above gives one argument
against Herodotus’s account, but there are other arguments. First, where
would the workers stand when carving from the top down? There isn’t
enough room at the top. Second, as a pyramid rises, the angles at the
corners must be repeatedly checked to make certain that the four sides
will meet perfectly at the top to create a point. This requires that fin-
ished blocks be in place as the pyramid grows. Third, if all the external
blocks were finished at the end of the project, this would add several
years to the construction time. Thus, for all these reasons, it makes
sense to complete each facing block in the quarry before it is placed on
There is also empirical evidence to show that the blocks were fin-
ished first and then put in place. The Bent Pyramid at Dashur has more
of its casing stones in place than any other pyramid. When these blocks
are examined carefully, one sees numerous blocks with chips that have
been repaired with matching limestone plugs. This suggests that the
blocks were finished and some damage occurred either during trans-
portation or while setting the blocks in position. If the blocks had been
set in place when rough and then finished in situ from top to bottom,
we wouldn’t expect to find many chips and repairs.
1. Isler, Sticks, Stones & Shadows, pp. 215—217, and Arnold, Building
in Egypt, p. 100. The problems with the single ramp theory are
sometimes ignored. See for example Romer, The Great Pyramid,
pp. 204-205, where he merely asserts “there was probably a single
central ramp built up higher and longer that rested on the Pyra-
mid’s south face . . .” There is never any discussion of just how
large or long such a ramp would have to be.
2. Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, p. 1675. The
story of A1 Mamun’s entering the Great Pyramid is tale 398. The
idea that the pyramid contained metal that would not rust and glass
that would not break is an early example of the tradition that the
ancient Egyptians were an advanced civilization, much of whose
wisdom and technology have been lost.
3. Two eight-inch rectangular channels, one beginning in the south
wall and one in the north, continue nearly 200 feet through the core
of the Pyramid. Why? It has been suggested that the shafts provided
ventilation for the workmen inside the chamber, but such a small
opening is clearly inadequate for air circulation. Others suggest that
they were used for observing stars to assist in the construction of the
Pyramid. This is impossible. The shafts are not straight; they begin
horizontally and then angle upward into the body of the Pyramid.
Still another possibility is that they were a very early intercom system
that conducted sound, enabling the workmen to communicate from
different parts of the Pyramid. It is also possible that the shafts had a
purely religious function, permitting the soul of the deceased pha-
raoh to come and go through the Pyramid.
In 1992, in an attempt to solve the mystery of the air shafts,
a small robot with a miniature video camera was designed and
constructed by Rudolph Gantenbrink, a German engineer. Named
Wepwawet, after the jackal god who led the deceased to the next
world and was called “the opener of the way,” the robot was basi-
cally a miniature tank, complete with treads. The idea was to send
the 17-centimeter robot through the 19-centimeter shafts to dis-
cover where they went. On its first voyage of discovery, it became
lodged in the shaft in the south wall. The enormous weight de-
flected by the chamber’s rafters had caused some settling of the
blocks forming the shaft and in some places the shaft was only 16.5
centimeters, just too small for Wepawet. In its first attempt, the
robot only penetrated 12 meters.
In the northern shaft, the camera revealed a long metal rod that
had been abandoned by Waynman Dixon, a nineteenth-century
explorer who first discovered the shafts by chiseling into the wall.
In 1993 Gantenbrink returned to Egypt with a smaller, rede-
signed Wepawet. On March 22, 1993, the robot slowly made its
way up the southern shaft and after about 185 feet encountered a
slab of limestone completely blocking the passageway. On the slab
are two copper fittings that look like handles. What’s behind the
block? We don’t know, and the robots’ exploration of the shafts in
the second burial chamber didn’t solve the question of the purpose
of the air shafts.
4. Exodus 1:12.
5. Genesis 37:2—50:26. The Joseph story of course never mentions
building pyramids as granaries. There are several Egyptian repre-
sentations of granaries and none is even remotely pyramidal. The
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a three-dimen-
sional model of a granary found in the tomb of a noblemen named
Meketre. It is a rectangular room.
6. Greaves, Pyramidographia.
7. Smyth, The Great Pyramid, p. ix. Smyth’s great opus went through
many editions, even though his theories were discarded by the sci-
entific community, and is still in print today more than a century
after it first appeared.
8. Smyth, page 35.
9. Ostrander and Schroeder, Psychic Discoveries. The authors visited
Soviet parapsychologists and reported their claims that dull razor
blades were sharpened when placed inside a cardboard pyramid.
When I was a research fellow at the Institute for Parapsychology
in Durham, NC, several of us tested the Soviet claim with poor
results. Still, the book started the “Pyramid Power” fad.
10. Scamuzzi, Egyptian Art.
11. Brier, “The Use of Natron in Human Mummification.”
12. Lauer, Saqqara. The excavation and reconstruction of the Step Pyr-
amid was the work of the French architect Jean- Philippe Lauer,
who worked at the site for more than fifty years.
13. Mendelssohn, Riddle of the Pyramids.
14. Another theory is that the pharaoh died before the pyramid was
completed and was thus buried elsewhere. This theory relies on the
identification of the owner of the pyramid as King Huni, father of
Sneferu, but there is little evidence for this attribution.
15. The ancient Greeks had a reverence for the even more ancient
Egyptians. Herodotus proudly states that the Greeks got their gods
from the Egyptians and also learned how to build in stone from
the Egyptians. Plato’s Dialogues present frequent references to the
Egyptians’ skills and wisdom. In the 1990s, Martin Bernal’s book
Black Athena continued this tradition and attempted to show that
much of western civilization derived from ancient Egypt. This
book was highly controversial and was criticized by the majority
16. Gillings, Mathematics in the Time of the Pharaohs.
17. Lichtheim, “Three Tales of Wonder.”
18. Jenkins, Boat Beneath the Pyramid.
19. Lipke, Royal Ship of Cheops.
20. Manetho, Aegyptiaca.
21. Because of the high water table in the area of what was ancient
Memphis, the ancient city has sunk into the ground and almost
completely disappeared. Excavations in the 1890s and early 1900s
were hindered considerably by water.
22. Krauss, “The Length of Sneferu’s Reign.”
23. Romer, The Great Pyramid, pp. 74-75. It is difficult to estimate the
number of workers, and estimates vary considerably.
24. Lehner, in Giza Reports, gives a good overview of the excavation
of the workers’ village. He also publishes a newsletter, Aeragram,
that gives progress reports of each season.
25. Naville, The Temple of Deir El Balir, Plates CLIII-CLIV.
26. Landstrom, Ships of the Pharaohs, provides a good survey of the
kinds of boats used in ancient Egypt.
27. Romer, The Great Pyramid, p. 169.
28. Petrie, Researches in Sinai.
29. Romer, The Great Pyramid, p. 158.
30. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials, pp. 74-79.
31. Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, p. 212.
32. Spence, “Ancient Egyptian Chronology.”
33. Goidin and Dormion, “Architectural Analysis.”
34. Bui, “First Results of Structural Analysis.”
35. Tonouchi, “Non-Destructive Pyramid Investigations.”
36. Eissa, “Application of Mossbauer and X-ray Fluorescence.”
37. Newberry, El Bersheh, Part I, pp. 16-26 and PI. XII.
38. For an excellent biography of Petrie, full of wonderful anecdotes,
see Flinders Petrie by Margaret Drawer.
39. Petrie, Pyramids and Temples, pp. 15—16.
40. Lehner, Pyramid Tomb of Hetep-here, pp. 45-50. For a brief account
of the discovery of Queen Hetepheres’s tomb, see Appendix III.
41. Hawass, “Pyramids and Temples of Egypt,” pp. 107-111.
42. Arnold, Building in Egypt, p. 9.
43. Herodotus, History, p. 427.
44. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History, Vol. I, p. 217.
45. James, Pharaoh’s People, p. 64.
46. Clarke, Ancient Egyptian Construction, fig. 86.
47. Houdin and Houdin, “Construction de la Pyramide de Kheops”
48. Hawass, Pyramids : Treasures, Mysteries, and New Discoveries,
49. No Spanish winch has ever been found, but it is certainly a simple
enough device that the Egyptians could have used it. Wood from
such machines would have been reused in later projects.
50. Perring, The Pyramids of Gizeh.
51. Vyse, Operations Carried On.
52. Actually, Jean-Pierre Houdin and his father published an early ver-
sion of his theory in book form in 2003 (Houdin and Houdin,
La Pyramide de Kheops ). The book went largely unnoticed, partly
because it was so technical and also because the publisher was ex-
tremely small and didn’t have the means to distribute it. A later
version of the theory was published in 2006 (J.-P. Houdin, Khufu)
in an edition to be sold only in the bookstore in the Egyptian
Museum in Cairo. This book too is extremely technical, has mostly
diagrams and little text, and could have benefited with professional
editing. It too, understandably, went unnoticed.
53. Kiner, Revelations sur Kheops, pp. 44-59, and Brier, “How the Pyr-
amids Were Built” pp. 22—27, for example.
54. Dassault Systemes, Kheops Revele.
55. Dormion, Pyramide of Cheops: Architecture des Appartements. The
plans are on twelve separate sheets, each covering a different area
of the Great Pyramid.
56. Brier, How the Pyramids Were Built.
57. Borchardt, “Der Bau,” fig. 20.
58. Goneim, The Buried Pyramid.
59. J. L. Smith, Tombs, Temples, & Ancient Art, pp. 147-148.
60. Stocks, Stoneworking Technology, pp. 169-177.
61. Stocks, Stoneworking Technology, p. 176.
Arnold, Dieter. Building in Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press,
. The Pyramid of Senwosret I. New York: Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 1988.
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Borchardt, Ludwig. “Der Bau” in Friedrich von Bissing, ed., Das
Re-Heiligtum des Konigs Ne-woser-re (Rathures), Vol. 1. Berlin: A.
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No. 3 (2007).
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mification: A Modern Experiment,” in Zeitschrift fur Agyptische
Sprache, Vol. 124 (1997), 89-100.
. “Surgical Procedures During Ancient Egyptian Mummifica-
tion,” in Zeitschrift fur Agyptische Sprache, Vol. 126 (1999), 89-97.
Bui, Hui Duong, et al. “First Results of Structural Analysis of the
Cheops Pyramid by Microgravity,” in Proceedings of the First Inter-
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vols. New York: Limited Edition Club, 1934.
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Benben Publications, 1998.
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chitecture. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1990.
Cottrell, Leonard. Mountains of Pharaoh. New York: Rinehart & Co.,
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David, Rosalie. The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt. London: Rout-
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pocrene Books, 1988.
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Empire and America. London: Covenant Publishing Co., 1932.
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University Press, 1968.
Dormion, Gilles, Pyramide of Cheops: Architecture des Appartements. Lille:
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Bones & Hulley, 1910.
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Government Printing Offices, 1959—61.
.The Pyramids. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Gillings, Richard. Mathematics in the Time of the Pharaohs. New York:
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of the Horizontal Passage and the Discharge Chambres,”in Proceed-
ings of the First International Symposium on the Application of Modern
Technology to Archaeological Exploration at the Giza Necropolis. Cairo:
Egyptian Antiquities Organization Press, 1988, 184-205.
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Grinsell, L. V. Egyptian Pyramids. East Gate, Gloucestershire, UK: John
Habachi, Labib. The Obelisks of Egypt. New York: Scribners, 1977.
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Hawass, Zahi, “The Pyramids and Temples of Egypt: An Update,” in
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. Mountains of the Pharaohs. Cairo: American University of Cairo
. 2007. Pyramids: Treasures, Mysteries, and New Discoveries in Egypt.
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Houdin, Jean-Pierre. Klmfu. Cairo: Farid Atiya Press, 2006.
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. La Pyramide de Kheops. Paris: Editions Du Linteau, 2003.
Isler, Martin. Sticks, Stones, & Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids.
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ronto: Firefly Books, 2003.
James, T.G.H. Pharaoh’s People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
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Egyptienne Generale du Livre, 1978.
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et Avenirs, April 2007.
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CA: Rosicrucian Press, 1928.
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Build the Red Pyramid,” in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 82
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Virgin Books, 1999.
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Revisited. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,
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. The Pyramid Tomb of Hetep-heres and the Satellite Pyramid of
Khufu. Mainz Am Rheim, Germany: Von Zabern, 1985.
. The Complete Pyramids. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.
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Mysteries of Man, 1989.
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Vols. I— VII. Rapallo: Officine Grafiche Canessa, 1963—1977.
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Mendelssohn, Kurt. The Riddle of the Pyramids. New York: Praeger,
Naville, Edouard. The Temple of Deir el Balni, Part VI. London: Egypt
Exploration Fund, 1908.
Newberry, Percy E. El Bersheh, Part I. London: Egypt Exploration
Ostrander, Sheila and Lynn Schroeder. Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron
Curtain. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970.
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Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.
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Histories & Mysteries of Man, 1990 (reprint).
. Researches in Sinai. London: John Murray, 1906.
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. The Great Pyramid. London: self-published, 1939.
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phia: Porter & Coates, 1877.
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Smithsonian Press, 2004.
Smith, Joseph Lindon. Tombs, Temples, & Ancient Art. Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
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Orientation of Pyramids,” in Nature, Vol. 408 (2000), 320-324.
Stocks, Denys. Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology. London: Routledge,
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cal Property of the Sand Found Inside Pyramid” in Proceedings of
the First International Symposium on the Application of Modern Technol-
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demia Skodaexport, 1994.
. Pyramids. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
Vyse, Howard. Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeli in 183 7. 3
vols. London: James Fraser, 1837-42.
All images courtesy of Bob Brier except:
Images throughout text:
Jon Bodsworth: pages 16-7, 31, 82-3 (bottom).
Jean-Pierre Houdin: pages 39, 83, 86, 95 (right), 103, 106, 143.
Val Parks: page 56.
Albert Ranson: pages 62-3, 129.
Farid Atiya: page 74.
Dassault Systemes: pages 98-9, 101, 105, 109, 112, 123 (bottom),
131, 132, 144, 146-7, 148, 159, 164-5, 169.
Edgar Brothers: page 104.
Henri Houdin: pages 127, 128.
EDF Foundation: page 134.
Images in color inserts:
Jon Bodsworth: page 1.
Hulton-Deutscti Collection/Corbis: page 2.
Dassault Systemes: pages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
Abu Gurob, 181, 182, 183
ACGP. See Association Constru-
ire la Grande Pyramide
Agyptiaca (Manetho), 56—57
Air France, 153
Alexander the Great, 56
A1 Mamun, 7, 8, 103, 203n2
Amenemhet (King of Egypt), 25
Arabian Nights, 8
Arbuthnot, Lady, 149
Arc de Triomphe, 40
Archaeology magazine, 171
Architects, 35, 37-42, 43-45. See
also Houdin, Jean-Pierre
Arnold, Dieter, 19—21, 152, 181,
Association Construire la Grande
Pyramide (ACGP), xi
Association for Research and
Astronomers, 60, 73, 74
Aswan granite quarry, 96, 109,
199-200. See also Quarries
Baron, Jean-Pierre, 137—138
Battle of Kadesh, 8
Battle of the Nile, 149
Bauefre, Prince, 51
Begin, Menachem (Prime Minis-
ter of Israel), 8
Benches, 95, 101, 103
Bent Pyramid of Dashur, 33—35,
59, 140, 202
Bernal, Martin, 205nl5
Birch, Dr. Samuel, 150
Blocks, 113-124, 144. See also
Boat Beneath the Pyramid, 52—54
for stone block transportation, 70
Borchardt, Ludwig, 181, 183
Breitner, Richard, 156, 157, 159,
Bridges and Roads Laboratory,
Brier, Bob, 152
British Museum, 14, 15, 150
Brousse, Mr., 153
Bui, Hui Duong, 90-91, 133-135
Building in Egypt (Arnold), 19
Burial chambers, 15, 18, 68,
107—112, 195. See also Cenotaph
recreation by 3-D computer,
Campbell, Colonel, 150
Capstone, 140, 145-150
Carter, Howard, 196
CATIA software, 157, 158
Cayce, Edgar, 64
Cenotaph, 28. See also Burial
Cheops boat, 53
Chirac, President, 47
Cleopatra VII, 56
CNISF. See Conseil National des
Ingenieurs et des Scientifiques
Colossus of Rhodes, 7
Conflans Bridge, 38
Conseil National des Ingenieurs
et des Scientifiques de France
Copper, 68, 72, 200
Corbelled ceiling, 30-32, 33-34,
35, 68, 95, 107
Coucy Castle, 152
Counterweights, 97, 100, 101,
102, 103, 109, 110, 132, 152
Crane, 130, 131
Daoud, 149, 150
Dashur Pyramid, 81—82, 116,
Dassault, Marcel, 156
Dassault Systemes, 156, 162,
Davison’s Chamber, 149
Death, 14, 49
burial and, 15, 18
funerary furniture, 4
De Closets, Francois, 48, 161,
Deletie, Pierre, 133-135
Diodorus of Sicily, 120
Dixon, Waynman, 203— 204n3
Dormion, Gilless, 86-89
Ecole des Arts et Metiers, 2, 37
Ecole des Beaux-Arts, 40
immortality of Egyptians,
middle class, 14
Old Kingdom, 18
war and, 24
Egyptian Antiquities Service, 52,
Egyptian Museum (Berlin, Ger-
Egyptian Museum (Cairo,
Egyptian Museum (Torino, Italy),
Eiffel, 152, 160
Embalmers, 54—55. See Mummi-
Emery, Walter B., 192, 193
Foster, Norman (Sir), 160
French Ministry of Foreign Rela-
French National Society of Engi-
neers and Scientists, 126
Funerary furniture, 4
Gabri, Ali, 115
The Gallery, 66
Gallery 43, 41
Gehry, Frank, 161
Ginger, 14-15, 18
Giza Plateau, xi, 7, 9, 47-48, 59,
81, 114, 116, 122, 130, 146,
172, 187, 198
bedrock plateau, 76-77
map of, 62-63
Giza pyramids, 9
early depictions of, 10
Goidin, Jean-Patrice, 86-89
Goneim, Zakariah, 194—195
GPR. See Ground penetrating
Graffiti, 175, 194
Granaries, 9, 65, 204n5
Grand Gallery, 4, 8, 11, 48, 86,
93-106, 104, 135, 140, 141,
147, 161. See also Great Pyra-
mid of Giza
gouges on the walls, 102
purpose, 93-95, 97, 105
relationship to King’s Chamber,
rigging system, 105
room versus passageway, 93-95
stone benches in, 95
Granite, 68-72, 98-99, 102, 105,
dolerite pounders, 69
Great pyramid of Giza, 1. See also
burial chambers, 11
capstone, 140, 145-150
computer analysis, 89-90
computer 3-D simulations, 130,
computer modeling, 157-165
construction, 70, 75-76
cracks in, 140, 141, 142
graffiti, 175, 194
granaries and, 9
ground penetrating radar and,
hauling blocks theory, 3
hidden chambers, 85—91
internal ramps, 139—144,
King’s Chamber, 4, 8, 11, 48,
86, 93, 95, 110, 142, 169-170
limestone versus granite
microgravimetric study, 133
the notch, 137-138, 143,
passageways, 86, 116
Queen’s Chamber, 4, 7-8, 48,
81, 82-83, 86, 90, 93, 107
ramp drawings, 126, 127, 128,
ramps. See Ramps
ramp theory, 3-4, 21, 123,
relieving chambers, 107—112
stories about, 9, 11
thermal photography, 185—188
work groups, 64
Greaves, John, 9, 11
Ground penetrating radar (GPR),
Guggenheim Museum (Spain),
Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 7
Harvard— Boston Museum, 196
Hathor, 178, 179
Hatshepsut (Queen of Egypt), 71
Hawass, Dr. Zahi, 186, 187
Heb-Sed Festival, 28
Hemienu, 55-61, 80, 93, 107,
113-124, 139-144, 145-150,
Herodotus, 117, 120, 130, 202
Hetepheres (Queen of Egypt), 33,
Hieroglyphs, 64, 96
Hildesheim Museum (Germany),
Historia (Herodotus), 117
Hoover Dam, 44
Horus-Sekhem-Khet, 14, 194,
Houdin, Bernard, 38, 40, 47, 152,
Houdin, Henri, 2, 37-42, 47-48,
125-132, 133-135, 153
Houdin, Jean-Pierre, xiii, 1—5,
126, 151-153, 207n52
in the Ivory Coast, 38-41
Montgolfier Prize and, 153
in New York City, 43—45
in Paris, 37-42, 44-45
Houdin, Michelle, 41, 135, 151,
Houdin, Renee, 151
Houphouet Boigny Bridge, 38
How the Great Pyramid Was Built
Huni (King of Egypt), 205nl4
Hypostyle Hall, 107, 108
IAEG. See International Associa-
tion for Engineering Geology
and the Environment
Imhotep, 23-28, 191-193
International Association for
Engineering Geology and the
Environment (IAEG), 90
Ivory Coast, 38-41, 47-48
Joseph, 9, 204n5
Josephson, Jack, 1, 152
Kamal el-Mallakh, 52
Karnak Temple, 107, 108, 121,
Kephren (King of Egypt), 35
Kerisel, Jean, 38-39, 47-48
Khufu (King of Egypt), 35, 54,
59, 79, 125, 135, 145, 150,
151-153, 197, 198, 199-200
King’s Chamber. See Great Pyra-
mid of Giza
Klein, Calvin, 41
Krauss, Rolf, 61
La Geode, 158-159, 160, 162,
Lauer, Jean-Fran^ois, 48
The Learning Channel, 3
Lehner, Mark, 65
Les Enfants Gates (The Rotten
Life and Work at the Great Pyramid
Lighthouse at Alexandria, 7
Limestone, 67, 112
Lost City, 65, 66
Lycee Carnot, 40
Maker of Stone Vessels. See Im-
Mariette, August, 186
Mastabas (tombs), 16-17, 18, 25
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, 7
Measurements, 11, 12, 115
Meidum Pyramid, 29—35, 81—82,
Mendelssohn, Kurt, 29
Meridien Etoile, 160
Mesana, Renee, 37-42
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 19,
Middle Kingdom pyramids, 116
Millau Viaduct, 160
Mirage jet, 156
Montgolfier Prize, 153
Mummies, 14—15, 191—193
Mummification, 13—14, 55. See
Mut Is Content, 8
The Mystery of the Pyramids, 48
Napoleon, 118-119, 153
Narmer (King of Egypt), 24
Narmer Palette, 24
National Geographic, 172
Nelson, Horatio (Admiral), 149
Nile, 24, 66
Ni-Userre (King of Egypt), 181
Noak’s Ark, 12
North Star, 73
Obelisk, 71, 96, 181, 199-200
Old Testament, 8
Operation Kheops, 88-89, 137,
Osiris (God of the Dead), 57
Overseer of the Quarries, 58
Overseer of Transport, 58
Palermo Stone, 49-50
Passageways, 86, 115-116
Passion for Innovation, 156
Perring, John, 149
Petrie, William M. Flinders,
Pharaoh, 8, 9, 14
Plato, 32, 205nl5
Ptah (creator God), 57, 192
Pyramidographia (Greaves), 11
Pyramids. See also Dashur Pyra-
mid; Giza pyramids; Great
Pyramid of Giza; Meidum
Pyramid; Middle Kingdom
pyramids; Red Pyramid; Step
Pyramid of Saqqara
corbelled ceilings, 30-32
Middle Kingdom, 116
Quarries, 30, 66-67, 69-72. See
also Aswan granite quarry
Queen’s chamber. See Great pyra-
mid of Giza
Ramps, 3-4, 21, 98-99, 121-123,
angle of incline, 143
computer-generated image, 134
drawings, 126, 127, 128, 129
internal, 139-144, 155-165,
Ramses (city), 8
Ramses the Great (pharaoh), 8,
Rechmire, 120, 121
Red Pyramid, 35, 59, 60, 61,
Red Sea, 72
Regional Museum of Archeology
Reisner, George Andrew,
Relieving chambers, 107—112,
141, 147, 149
Remler, Pat, 2
Re (sun god), 51-52
Sacred cubit, 12, 13
Saqqara cemetery, 15, 58, 191
Sarcophagus, 4, 8, 79, 109, 115,
195, 197, 199-200
Scaparro, Jack, 2
Schiaparelli, Ernesto, 13
Schlosser, Francois, 168
SEIN. See Societe
Seked. See Pyramids, angles
Sekhem-Khet (King of Egypt),
Sesostris (King of Egypt), 25
Seven wonders of the world, 7
Sewn boat, 54
Shadoufs, 117, 118-119, 120
SIMULIA program, 167
Sinai Desert, 72
Smith, Craig B., 160, 161
Smith, Joseph Lindon, 197—198
Smyth, Piazzi, 11—12, 114—115,
Sneferu (King ofEgypt), 32, 34,
49-50, 198, 205nl4
Societe d’Encouragement pour
l’lndustrie Nationale (SEIN),
Societe des Ingenieurs des Arts et
Solomon’s Temple, 12
Son of Re, 25
Southern Burial, 28
Spanish winch, 146, 148
Sphinx, 64, 85, 121, 149, 177
Spry-Leverton, Peter, 160
Stadelmann, Dr. Rainer, 60—61,
Statue of Zeus, 7
Step Pyramid of Saqqara, 25, 59,
exterior walls, 26
outside view, 26
Stocks, Denys, 200
Stone blocks, gravitational force
and, 88-89. See also Trolley
Sun temple, 181, 183
Supreme Council of Antiquities,
Tayoubi, Mehdi, 156-157, 159
Temple of Artemis, 7
Temple of Dendera, 178, 179,
Thales Group, 152
Thales of Miletus, 32-33
Tombs, 16-17, 18
paintings in, 96, 121
Treasure, 147, 150, 195, 196
Trolley, 97, 100, 101, 102, 103,
Tura, 67, 72
Tutankhamen, 21, 65, 152, 195, 196
Tuthmosis III (King of Egypt), 32
Valley Temple of Kephren, 32, 85
Ventilation shafts, 127
Victory in Thebes, 8
Vyse, Howard (Colonel), 149-150
Webb, William, 70
Webb Institute for Naval Archi-
Wellington, Duke of, 149
Westcar Papyrus, 50, 51
The White Wall. See Memphis
Widener Library (Harvard), 198
Yoshimura, Dr. Sakuji, 89-90
Zoser (King of Egypt), 23, 25,
About the Authors
Bob Brier is a world-famous Egypt-
ologist who has conducted research on
pyramids and tombs in fifteen countries.
A senior research fellow at the C.W. Post
campus of Long Island University, he is the
author of seven books, including The Mur-
der of Tutankhamen, and hosted the Great
Egyptian series for the Learning Channel.
Jean-Pierre Houdin left his
Parisian architecture firm in 1999 to devote
himself to solving the mystery of the Great
Pyramid. He has been awarded the Mont-
golfier Prize for his research.
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HarperCollinsPublishers (New Zealand) Limited
P.O. Box 1
Auckland, New Zealand
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
77-85 Fulham Palace Road
London, W6 8JB, UK
HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
10 East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022